This post-tour evaluation comment from participant Mike Walsh on our two-parted Nowhere but Northeast Brazil! tour with guides Bret Whitney and Marcelo Padua earlier this year caught our eye (as did photographs from another participant, Markus Lagerqvist!)…
“One of the marks of a truly great bird tour company is the ability and willingness to be flexible during a tour. Part I of the Nowhere but Northeast Brazil! tour was wrapping up, and we had a lot of travel staring us in the face. Bret decided to try a new area, one that was recommended to him by some of his birding pals in Brazil. We headed out to a dry, nondescript patch of land (in a beautiful setting) to take a look. We piled out to take some pics and see what was moving. Down the road a bit, we find a field of flowers, and in the field, the most magical assemblage of hummingbirds I will probably ever see. Front and center is the Ruby-topaz hummer, an absolutely fantastic bird…
“As the shutterbugs are getting their thrills, Marcelo calls out ‘Horned Sungem!’ Not one, but two! There were at least eight species of hummers in the field. In the dry scrub adjacent to the field, we found crescentchests, tachuris, and the Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant…
“On the way back to the bus, I stopped to take in the view one last time and a Horned Sungem flies up to me, stopping a meter away at eye level, checking me out. I was just stunned and didn’t move for the five seconds he hovered there. What an experience!”
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.
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!
Ever since the late nineties, when during the first three months of the year I began flying to the west out of LAX across the Pacific instead of to the south out of Miami and across the Caribbean to South America, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more the complex and stunning avifauna of southern Asia. Most of those flights across the Pacific were to lovely Thailand, but they were soon followed by regular visits to nearby Vietnam and Malaysia/Borneo, and then to the diverse archipelago of the Philippines.
For me, antbirds at that season were replaced by babblers, toucans by hornbills, motmots by bee-eaters. It was quite a change, but one that I’ve thoroughly embraced and grown to love. I still get to show off those Neotropical lovelies to clients at other times of the year when I guide tours to Ecuador, Argentina, and other Neotropical destinations–I’ll never be able to give up my antbirds, toucans, and motmots entirely!
Since my first visit to Asia, Field Guides has offered more and more tours there, many of which I’ve been lucky enough to guide, and I’ve predictably started hearing an obvious question from clients: Where the heck do you start? A tough question indeed. The right answer really depends on what you want to get out of birding in Asia. If you want just to sample it once and never return, I’d have to recommend Thailand. A fun, comfortable tour with a particularly outstanding ground crew, a co-leader second to none, fantastic food, and loads of birds just about everywhere with representatives of nearly every Southeast Asian bird family that you could think of make this one, in my view, the obvious choice for the one-time Asia birding holiday.
But, if you take that one Thailand trip, you’re guaranteed to come back for more! Want the quintessential Himalayan experience? Jump on board for Bhutan. Got a hankering for Bengal Tiger, the incomparable Taj Mahal, a rich culture, and a boatload of birds and mammals, try Northern India. Are you looking for a trip that’s a bit more demanding physically but full of riveting endemics? Try the Philippines or our Borneo tour. And don’t forget Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Japan, Southern India, Cambodia–they’ve all got great birds, are a heck of a lot of fun, and are all culturally fascinating. Odds are that you’ll never be able to take just one and that you, like me, will fall in love with this incredible region of our diverse planet!
I like canasteros. I like canasteros a lot. There are only five people in the world who like canasteros more than I do, and they ain’t admitting it. However, I have decided to break with the status quo (don’t voluntarily humiliate yourself in public) and admit my infatuation with these long wiry-tailed brown jobbies that live in brown places and probably eat brown things. Canasteros, to put it in terms my mom would understand, are neat. To put it in terms my brother would understand, canasteros are gettin’ jiggy with it.
The Spanish word canastero means simply “basket-maker.” Canasteros make baskets, sort of. Their nests, which are made of fine grasses or small twigs, resemble baskets. Canasteros belong in the family Furnariidae, and are classed in one of two genera: Asthenes and Pseudasthenes. The genus Asthenes also includes Itatiaia Spinetail and 8 species of thistletail, which are, for all intents and purposes, also canasteros.
If you read a description of the habitat or location of canasteros, you will find a repetition of the words “arid” and “Andes.” So, though technically many canasteros are found well within the New World tropics, you may be wearing a warm jacket when you see one; there could be snow on the ground and quite possibly no trees in sight. If you read about their songs (if you can call what comes out of their syrinx a song), then you will find clarifying tidbits like “repetition,” “trill,” “descending,” “sometimes ascending,” or “strident.” These birds are loud vocalists, but their voices are not necessarily their endearing marks. Or, at least no one is describing them as accomplished songsters. Now then, what does one look for visually to distinguish them, that is, what are their field marks? Streaking (presence or absence; above or below). Chin patch (presence of ?). Any rufous on the tail? Any rufous on the wing? Oh boy, this sounds like a bit of a challenge. Hey, look at that Mountain Caracara! Wowwwwww.
Canasteros can be a bit of a mystery. While we were distracted by a flicker or that caracara, it has snuck in like a mouse, making its way through the bunchgrass, popping its little head up, sitting up to take a peek, moving closer, until just a few feet from our group its up on a rock, head held high, tail cocked, and singing. Okay, maybe just trilling, but it’s loud and we are still shocked. How did it get here so quietly and without our noticing?! Now, of course, this doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes it just pokes around in the grass or rocks, calls a few times, and we never see it. This frustrates us no end. It’s partly because in the field guide description on distribution it states many canasteros are “local and rare” or “local and uncommon” and always punctuated with “hard to see.” True, but that’s part of the allure.
Wish me luck. I am now on a Canastero Quest. You all are the first to know. Forget warblers, hummingbirds, and who needs those Tangara tanagers, anyway? I want brown, streaky, loudly trilling, local, and difficult to see. I want behavioral problems. I want color without the color.
Guide Jesse Fagan (a.k.a. theMotmot) still has a bunch of canasteros to see. And where can you hope to see a canastero? Certainly on either of Jesse’s MACHU PICCHU & ABRA MALAGA, PERU tours, or on many of our Andean tours, a sampling of which includes:
When it comes to bird spectacles, the bustling breeding cliffs of Northern Hemisphere seabirds are in a class of their own. And my favorite such cliff is on the Pribilofs on Saint Paul Island–a tiny flyspeck of land in the middle of the vast Bering Sea. It’s one of the first places we visit on our Alaska tour, and the combination of frenetic activity and arm’s length birding makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
The rocky headland of Ridge Wall juts out into the cold sea like the prow of a very tall ship. We leave the warmth of the bus and walk a narrow track toward the water, weaving through colorful patches of emerging Arctic wildflowers. Ahead of us, birds stream back and forth along the edge of the cliff, wings churning. As we reach the headland, the scene expands. All around us, birds flash like flakes in a giant snow globe. Hundreds more dot the surface of the water below. Even when they dive, we can still see them, “flying” through the clear green water in pursuit of prey. A cacophony of sound rises from the colony: the onomatopoeic “kittiwake” of Black-legged Kittiwakes, the high, excited trills of Least Auklets, the throaty, nasal laughter of murres, and the occasional sputtering roar of a distant Northern Fur Seal. The fishy smell of guano hangs heavy in the air. “Smells like birds,”someone quips
Below us, bunched on crowded ledges, Common and Thick-billed murres jostle for position, their beaks pointed skyward. Pairs of Parakeet Auklets squabble over turf. Crested Auklets preen and wag their crests at each other. Red-faced Cormorants add giant mouthfuls of damp vegetation to growing nests. Horned and Tufted puffins doze at burrow entrances, their bright beaks glowing against the dark volcanic rock. Pairs of Northern Fulmars gently nibble each other’s neck feathers. In every direction, birds are doing the things birds do–and our clifftop perch gives us the perfect location from which to watch and photograph.
Once everyone’s gotten a good look at all possible lifers, we can settle down to learning more: about how the various species divvy up the cliff so that each gets its preferred nest site, about the courtship and nesting strategies of the cliff ’s inhabitants, of the subtle differences between Red legged and Black-legged kittiwakes in flight, the best ways to distinguish Common Murres from Thick-billed Murres at a distance, the key field marks for identifying auklets on the water. By the time we leave the island, we’ll have had multiple hours in which to practice and hone our skills.
And we’ll have had multiple hours of enjoying thousands of birds going about their busy lives–feeding, courting, preening, resting–within mere yards of where we stood. In the world of bird spectacles, that’s mighty hard to beat!
There are not many places left nowadays where you can go to “escape it all.” There is internet even at many remote lodges on the Amazon–lodges that didn’t have electricity until a few years ago–and guests can log on to find out the latest news, stock prices, and football scores. You can be in the middle of nowhere and yet not miss a step.
But wait a second–what about visiting a place where you can leave the outside world behind, where the ups and downs of politics and the bad news that never seems to end simply melt away and you instead find yourself in the midst of vast stretches of pristine wilderness and incredible wildlife (including birds, of course!), with two full weeks to totally immerse yourself in this truly wild and wonderful place? If that’s what you’re looking for, think Suriname.
Suriname is South America’s smallest sovereign nation with a population under half-a-million people of a dozen tongues, the vast majority of whom live near the Caribbean coast. This immediately translates to “tens of thousands of square miles of undisturbed habitats with no people and no tongues,” definitely a wild & wonderful thing. Consider next that there are few roads anywhere into the interior, which means you have to take wild & wonderful charter flights into dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere. As the porters scramble up to unload the plane at Foengoe Island and it hits you that the friendly pilot will now be leaving for…how many days was it?…you are overcome with the strangest mix of trepidation and excitement (after all, two hours in a big turbo-prop covers a good piece of ground) that, amazingly, vanishes instantly as a troop of earnestly prayed-for Red-fan Parrots squeals into the trees to check us out; yes, another w & w thing! One hour and nine lifers later, at the lodge down by the river, still trying to wrap your head around those macaws, you’re pleasantly surprised to see that the rooms are really neat and as you lather up in the shower, you find yourself smiling so much that you catch a mouthful of soap. Nothing like a frosty drink to reset the palate and, as we wrap up the daily list, it smells like there’s something tasty coming out of the kitchen. When it gets there, no one can identify it but heck, this is Suriname, and as you dig in, it actually turns out to be one of the best meals you ve had in forever.
In this world where we can Skype from one side of the globe to the other, it’s nice to experience what it was like to travel just a few decades ago. If you are interested in refreshing your memory, come join us in Suriname!
Dan Lane, who, while he admits that it may sound a bit old-fashioned, says, “This is the way I like to spend time on a tour, enjoying the antics of Gray-winged Trumpeters or listening for the mooing call of a Capuchinbird high in the canopy, rather than checking on stocks at the end of the day…” will be taking a small group this March 2-17 to Suriname. For full details visit our tour page where you may download a detailed tour itinerary. You may also check out Dan’s bio and upcoming schedule at this link.
OK, it’s true, I don’t really hate pheasants. But the relationship is complicated!
You see, there are four species that are regularly seen in Bhutan, and we always see several and often all of them. But tour guides are really into control, and over pheasants we do not have much control. That’s the complication…
Pheasants in Bhutan are most easily seen from the bus while driving along the road, which means we are dependent on the pheasants to step out onto the road just before we get to an unknowable “there,” not before some other vehicle gets to that spot. OK, so a bunch of luck is involved, but luck, as the saying goes, can be the residue of design, and we do have strategies.
Strategy number one is to be out early, or perhaps also late. What do pheasants do the rest of a nice day? I have no idea; readingWilliam Beebe’s A Monograph of the Pheasants on their 3G Kindles under a rhododendron has yet to be disproved as a possibility. In comparison with the introduced Ring-necked Pheasants we see in fields in North America, these pheasants are closely associated with forest and treeline scrub as cover, and they seem plenty savvy about sneaking away from approaching birders, even quiet approaching birders!
What brings pheasants out of the forest? Bad Weather: Neither sleet nor snow stops either our Post Office or pheasants, although the advent of electronic mail seems to be stopping our post office, whereas it is helping pheasants by reducing logging for paper production. Indeed, bad weather emboldens pheasants, so strategy number two is to make the best of bad luck. Last year we had wonderful looks at Blood Pheasants our first morning, and didn’t see any the rest of the trip because the weather was too nice. In other years, we have seen as many as 30 Blood Pheasants along the same roads during a late spring snow storm. You start to get the picture: Early + late or bad luck (weather), + some (good) luck = pheasants.
Pheasants are sexually dimorphic. So if a female Himalayan Monal steps out onto the road, is its ptarmigan-like beauty completely satisfying? Not for most of us. None of this electronic ink coloring for our tour groups; we are a Color Nook or iPad crowd, and we want males! Aaahh, another complication!
Like most North American birders, you’ve probably wandered south from time to time, at least among the colorful plates of the many exciting books on the birds of South America. If you find the comfort of cooler temperatures appealing, you’ve probably been drawn to the birds of the Andean countries. If you have yet to make the plunge, which species do you dream of seeing? What would you list as the classiest birds of the Andes?
Do you dream of Torrent Ducks repeatedly plunging from rocks into rushing water and bounding back onto the rocks? Do you imagine a White-capped Dipper hopping through the mist at the base of a tall waterfall? Or have the showier birds grabbed your attention? How about a tree full of displaying Andean Cocks-of-the-rock? Or maybe a fruiting tree with both Crested and Golden-headed quetzals? Surely you would include a mountain-toucan, probably Gray-breasted, for the dynamite colors on its bill! Then there’s the multicolored Toucan Barbet, with a bill so strange it has recently been accorded family rank (along with Prong-billed Barbet of Costa Rica and Panama). You might throw in a dramatically beautiful woodpecker, maybe a Powerful or a Crimson-mantled? How about a flock of Turquoise Jays, gleaming blue as they hop along mossy branches? If you’re into raptors, you’ve probably imagined a massive male Andean Condor circling in the sun below a snow-capped volcanic peak…or a Black-and-chestnut Eagle diving for prey at close range. If you love night birding, you may have imagined a spectacular male Lyre-tailed or Swallow-tailed Nightjar circling overhead, its tail streamers flowing in the spotlight. Oh, or maybe the mysterious Andean Potoo or a big, spectacular owl, something like Band-bellied perhaps? (Or how about an undescribed species!)
Speaking of spectacular, can it be that I haven’t yet mentioned hummingbirds or tanagers? These two families—at their greatest diversity in northwestern South America—must certainly contain among the foremost jewels of the Andes. But which species to include among the “classiest”? Would it be the Sword-billed for its incredibly long bill? Or the male Booted Racket-tail with its unique tail and extensive, puffy boots? Or one of the long-tailed sylphs with their iridescent crowns and tails? For exuberant color, you might pick the chartreuse-and-violet Purple-backed Thornbill, the Glowing Puffleg (which glows all over!), the splendid Rainbow Starfrontlet, or the unreal Velvet-purple Coronet? There are so many gems among the hummers, it’s impossible to choose.
As for tanagers, one can throw the whole Thesaurus at the many colorful Tangaras that seem so distinctive on the plates and then challenge the observer to retain their complex patterns long enough for ID: things like Paradise, Flame-faced, Golden, and Golden-eared. And what about the lovely mountain-tanagers of the high-elevation forests…or the tasteful Iridisornis (like Golden-crowned Tanager)? You might have to consider the stunning Red-hooded Tanager that sings from treetops above epiphyte-laden cloud forest? And what of those noisy flocks of aberrant White-capped Tanagers, flying along a distant Andean ridge, that approach suddenly and begin screaming and bowing, jay-like, their plush white crowns erect? Would you include a Giant Conebill foraging under the tissue-like scales of the Polylepis bark?
If you’ve been to The Bird Continent, you may be dreaming of slightly more subtle species, perhaps some of the tougher ones, or some that have grabbed your attention for their unique behavior or structure or their specialized habitat. Maybe you dream of a pair of ptarmigan-like Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe picking through cushion plants on a paramo peak? You may be thinking of such scarce and intriguing loners as Black-streaked Puffbird, Lanceolated Monklet, or Scaled Fruiteater? If you’re into skulkers, you’ve probably mused about a big, spectacular Ocellated Tapaculo emerging from the bamboo to sit out sunning on a mossy log…or an Elegant Crescentchest working its way to the top of a dense thornbush in an arid interior valley…or a covey of twittering wood-quail (of any species!) emerging from the dark understory of a neblina-enveloped cloud forest? How about the scarce and aberrant Tanager Finch, with colors befitting a tanager but a brush-finch-like pattern and song (and now placed in the Emberizids)? If you’ve pored through the South American field guides, you could be lusting after an entire spectrum of shy and rarely seen antpittas, ranging from the largest (Giant) to the fanciest of the tiny Grallaricula’s (Crescent-faced). Of these rarely encountered ground-antbirds, the more the better!
You may have caught the news in Science of the discovery of the stridulation mechanism—unique among vertebrates—by which a male Club-winged Manakin produces harmonic tones during his courtship display; it’s essentially the way a cricket produces its sound! If so, you’re likely to include that species in your “classiest” list. Or you may have read of such threatened species as Red-faced Parrot, White-necked Parakeet, or Orange-breasted Fruiteater and be eager to track them down. If you’re into birdsong, you may have read that scientists now regard the song of the group-living Plain-tailed Wren as “one of the most complex singing performances yet described in a nonhuman animal.” While some may dream of dramatic tanagers, a precisely singing Plain-tailedWren may be a jewel to you! (And while we’re dreaming, how about a Spectacled Bear?)
Well, you may have surmised by now that there’s only one Field Guides tour on which every one of these species has been seen: our JEWELS OF ECUADOR: HUMMERS, TANAGERS & ANTPITTAS tour. Though we’ve never seen them all on any one tour (such is the nature of birding in the Andes), we keep trying—and we do see the majority on each tour. Some sixty-five species of hummers is par for the course, along with jillions of so-called “tanagers.” With some help from the antpitta feedings at Refugio Paz and San Isidro, we’ve actually seen as many as 10 of the 15 possible antpittas on one tour!
We typically see the beautiful “San Isidro Owl,” still undescribed officially as of this writing; we’ve seen coveys of Dark-backed Wood-Quail, and we’ve seen Spectacled Bear on at least five tours! In our 16 days of birding, we see oodles of additional species, of course, usually totaling some 500+ species. How’s that for an immersion in Andean birding? In the process we stay in some wonderful settings (right in good habitat), eat gourmet food, and enjoy wonderful Ecuadorian hospitality. JEWELS offers a good introduction to South American birds, and it’s great for veterans as well. In fact, you veterans should hear some late-breaking news: Marcelo at San Isidro recently succeeded in training a Peruvian Antpitta (such a rare and recent addition to the Ecuador list that it’s not even in the book) to come for bits of earthworms! Feelin’ lucky? Come join us for one of our upcoming tours to survey the Jewels of Ecuador.
Though it hardly seems possible to me, we’ve been visiting northern India now for over ten years, and by carefully tweaking the itinerary here and there, we have what we think is the very best tour available. From the misty dawns among the waterfowl at Bharatpur to the clear air and forests of Corbett National Park, with Indian Elephant, Spotted Deer, and Wild Boar, Ibisbill on the river at Ramnagar, and woodpeckers, redstarts, forktails, and laughingthrushes in the Himalayan foothills, we visit all the best areas on the northern subcontinent.
A boat trip on the Chambal River, near Agra and the TajMahal, is a recent addition to the tour. Here, Red-naped Ibis walk along the banks, Black-bellied Terns feed over the open water, and (with luck) the endangered Ganges Dolphin surfaces close by. To the south, Kanha National Park, where we spend three nights, is the best place in all of India to see that most magnificent of cats—the fabulous Tiger! The park also gives us a chance for the rare Dhole (or IndianWild Dog), Gaur, Sloth Bear, and even Leopard, as well as a number of birds that should include Painted Francolin, Alexandrine Parakeet, SirkeerMalkoha, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, and Indian Scimitar-Babbler. In several areas we benefit from the assistance of some excellent local guides, giving us an even better chance than ever to see some of the rarer species like White-rumped and Indian vultures (both critically endangered) or a Tawny Fish-Owl, perhaps a fruiting tree with hornbills, barbets, and greenbuls or a dense thicket with a wintering Siberian Rubythroat or secretive Long-billed Thrush.
But northern India isn’t just about traveling from one birding hotspot to another. For a first-time visitor, the sheer mass of vibrant color, gorgeous women in saris, vegetable stalls piled high with produce, unfamiliar smells of unusual spices, and the jostle of camel carts, rickshaws, painted trucks, and buses will all have your senses running amok. Add to this some of India’s most famous historical sights, including the Palace of Akbar the Great and the just out-of-thisworld Taj Mahal, and Northern India really is a tour not to be missed.
Visit our Northern India tour’s web page for more information including an itinerary and some past triplists.