Endemic birds? Madagascar’s in the 100+ club!

The far-carrying call of the Cuckoo-Roller is surely one of the most evocative and memorable sounds of Madagascar. The distinctive Cuckoo-Roller comprises an endemic family all its own, just one of several bird families restricted only to Madagascar. (Listen to a cut recorded by guide Megan Crewe on one of our recent tours.)

The endemic Cuckoo-Roller is the only member of the family Leptosomatidae. Photo by guide Dave Stejskal.

We should see—and hear—it on our upcoming Madagascar tour, which is designed to give us an excellent chance of finding representatives from all five (or six) of the families of birds found only here and on the nearby Comoros, and of seeing 110 or more of the 250 endemics on the island.  In addition to the birds we should see a dozen or more species of lemurs, including the nearly all-white sifakas and the tiny mouse lemurs, smallest of all primates.  And this year we’ve added something new to the tour, a pre-trip to the Masoala peninsula.

In addition to its endemic birds, Madagascar holds many endemic mammals such as the Ring-tailed Lemur pictured here and photographed by guide Dave Stejskal.

Masoala is that part of the country on the northeast corner that juts down into the Indian Ocean (click here to see our map).  Masoala supports the largest area of rainforest surviving in Madagascar, and with the creation in the 1990’s of the huge Masoala National Park, it has become one of Madagascar’s top conservation priorities. As you might have guessed, because of their isolation, the forests of Masoala hold many endemic species—among the most desired of them in the bird world is surely the amazing Helmet Vanga, a large blue-black bird with rufous wings and a huge arched blue bill (the only member of the genus Euryceros). But there are other reasons as well to go there—the rare Bernier’s Vanga, the Short-legged Ground-Roller, Madagascar Serpent-Eagle, and Madagascar Red and Madagascar Long-eared owls, as well as some spectacular lemurs and chameleons we won’t see elsewhere on the tour.

The Pitta-like Ground-Roller, another colorful endemic. Photo by guide Dave Stejskal.

Visiting the Masoala peninsula used to be something of an ordeal, mainly because the only available places to stay on the peninsula were quite basic.  But with the opening of several new ecotourism lodges with comfortable accommodations, guide Phil Gregory decided this year to add it to our regular tour as an optional pre-trip.

Dates for 2011 are November 8-December 4, with the Masoala pre-trip from November 4.  Visit our Madagascar tour page for full details, including our itinerary.

Louisiana: Red Beans & Yellow Rails Birding Wrap-up

We had great success the first morning of our Louisiana: Red Beans & Yellow Rails tour with more than forty sightings of the usually quite difficult-to-see Yellow Rail!

Hitching a ride on a combine is a great way to spot rails. (Photo by participant Bill Byers.)

We coordinated with local farmers to get up close and personal as they do their normal rice harvesting, which secondarily creates a birding phenomenon. The large combines circle the fields, and with each pass Yellow Rails flush ahead of the combine. Some fly off a good ways while others land in the tracks and stand for a few seconds before burying themselves again in the thick cover. I even saw one rail freeze as the combine, which cuts the rice about eight inches high, passed right over it, then the rail ran off. If you don’t want to be standing in a marsh at night hearing them ticking away, this is the way to see a Yellow Rail.

This Clapper Rail, on the East Jetty, was one of several rail species we saw well on the tour. (Photo by participant Bill Byers.)

And the number of rails of all species in these fields was impressive, as we saw 25-plus Virginias, Soras, and a few Kings as well. When you look at how many rice fields there are in this part of the country, the potential number of rails is staggering.

Of course the Yellow Rails stand out, but also impressive were the evening flights of Snow and White-fronted geese and White-faced Ibis. We watched many thousands of these descend on a flooded field at dusk. Good views of Nelson’s, Seaside, and Bachman’s sparrows along with a wide array of shorebirds on the beach were highlights in their own right.

Caspian and Common terns, skimmers, and gulls on the beach. (Photo by participant Bill Byers.)

We also had many opportunities to experience the three “Cs” of Cajun Country: Catfish, Crabs, and Crawfish. While the cuisine was great, this trip was just the right length before we could be tempted to overdo it!

Our 2011 Louisiana: Red Beans & Yellow Rails tour is scheduled for November 3-7 with Dan Lane. To read more, visit the tour page at the link above. And you can check out Dan’s or John’s complete upcoming tour schedules from our guide page.

The Kirtland’s Warbler: Eleuthera Island, Bahamas

The Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the rarest of the temperate New World warblers. It is listed as a federally endangered species and Near Threatened by BirdLife International. Nearly its entire population (current estimates of more than 3600 individuals) breeds in north-central Michigan in young Jack Pine forests. These forests were once naturally fire-maintained ecosystems, but they are now heavily managed through controlled burns and harvesting.

Jesse Fagan
Jesse Fagan

Brown-headed Cowbirds, though native to the Great Plains,  spread into Michigan in the 1880s following the felling of eastern forests, which acted as a natural break to the expansion of this species eastward. Cowbird parasitism rates on Kirtland’s Warbler were once as high as 70%, but with control measures that began in the 1970s, this rate dropped to a low of 3%, and warbler productivity tripled. The population of Kirtland’s Warbler has continued to grow since the 1990s, so much so that the federal government is beginning to think about de-listing it. Pairs are now breeding in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in Ontario, and most recently in central Wisconsin. Despite still being very rare in migration, birds are being found with more frequency, including at least two seen in northwest Ohio in May 2010. I was fortunate to see a female on migration in late September 2006 on Folly Island (Charleston County), South Carolina.

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler, Eleuthera

Surprisingly though, my experiences with Kirtland’s have not occurred where most people are likely to see them. I mentioned the bird in migration (my lifer), but I have now had the pleasure of seeing Kirtland’s Warbler on its wintering grounds in the Bahamas. In late April 2008, I made my first visit to the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to scout the area for a Field Guides tour there. Eleuthera is one of just two islands in the archipelago where visitors can see Great Lizard-Cuckoo, though I must admit I had Kirtland’s on my mind as well. I searched extensively throughout the island but didn’t find a one. I suppose the late date of my trip may have had something to do with this. Kirtland’s generally arrive on their breeding grounds in mid-May, which would mean that many of them have probably left or are beginning to leave the islands by late April.

It was the following year in early April 2009 while leading the tour that I got my first look at a wintering Kirtland’s Warbler. We had spent the previous day on Eleuthera tracking down the Great Lizard-Cuckoo, eventually finding several individuals around our hotel grounds on the north end of the island near Gregory Town. These oversized Coccyzus cuckoos spend much of the day in the shadows of tall coppice hunting Anolis lizards. Occasionally they like to come out and sun themselves. They also make amazing cackling or growling sounds. However, on this day I knew I needed to find some good low scrub or coppice if we had any chance of locating a Kirtland’s, our remaining target bird. We set out and after driving several kilometers south of Governor’s Harbour I eased the van over to the right shoulder at a spot where the habitat looked good—a mix of low open scrub with visible bare ground between bushes. No sooner had we gotten out of the van than we began hearing a rich call note, tsip!, coming from the vegetation. All of a sudden, a bird popped up in front of us in the closest small scrub. A little surprised, I remember saying to the group, “Hey guys, that’s a Kirtland’s Warbler!”

Bahamas birds
A few resident friends that Kirtland's Warblers get to see in the Bahamas in winter: the rose-throated Bahama Parrot (likely to be split from Cuban), a glowing male Bahama Yellowthroat, and the dark-eyed Thick-billed Vireo. (All photos by Jesse Fagan)

We ended up finding a total of five Kirtland’s that day at two different sites. In April 2010 our tour group found another female. That totals six sightings of Kirtland’s in two years. Not bad, I believe, considering the paucity of records on the wintering grounds. All our sightings were of unbanded birds and most appeared to be females or first-year birds. It is surprising to me that we didn’t find any males, but perhaps males prefer a slightly different habitat type or maybe we just missed them. Adult male warblers typically leave the wintering grounds before females, but early April is still probably too early for migration of either sex.

It is exciting when tour leading and science can mix. I know our participants enjoy being a part of something that is not well studied—a feeling that every little photo or written note is helping us to learn a bit more about a species, in this case the Kirtland’s Warbler.

See our Bahamas tour page for more information on our upcoming tours, or visit Jesse’s guide page for his complete tour schedule.

Cool tour news: Bald Parrot at Cristalino

Guide John Rowlett, who’s been busy in Brazil the past few weeks guiding two of our regular fall itineraries, just emailed the following from the Field Guides Brazil’s Cristalino Jungle Lodge tour he’s concluding:

John Rowlett“Yesterday we were treated to a Bald Parrot sitting along the Rio Cristalino paired with an Orange-cheeked Parrot! They sat atop a dead snag in beautiful early morning light vocalizing quietly to each other. As folks may know, this parrot was only named in 2002. As an adult this species has a completely unfeathered orange head, really bizarre looking (the head of the juveniles is feathered!). As I recorded a little of their voices, they left their perch and flew off down the Cristalino.  Sensational!”

Visit our tour page for more information about future departures of this trip.

Bird Buzz: Rufous Potoo!

Nightbirding leads us to some of the most interesting and poorly known birds we encounter on tour. Guide Bret Whitney‘s photos, video, and text below introduce us to one of the most seldom seen, the fabulous Rufous Potoo of Amazonia. The text and photos are great, but be sure also not to miss the 1-minute video at the bottom of this page.

Of the seven currently recognized species of potoos –- all in the genus Nyctibius (Greek for “night-feeding”) –- the Rufous Potoo is certainly the most distinctive… and the most mysterious.  Up until the late 1980s, very few ornithologists had seen one alive, and its voice remained unknown; to this day only a small cadre of researchers and birders has thrown the beam of a spotlight on one.  In that moment of epiphany, each and every one of them, without doubt, has marveled at the intricacy of the pearl-spotting on “gold-leaf” (hence the Latin epithet bracteatus) plumage that so sets the Rufous apart from its brethren. It is by far the smallest potoo, too, and it possesses the strangest dark apron at the bottom edge of its pupil, as if a black keyhole were set into the brilliant yellow orb of its iris.

The Rufous Potoo has evolved some remarkable life traits and survival strategies.  The “nest,” for example, is the exposed top of a vertical, broken stub a few inches in diameter in the understory of terra firme (never flooded) forest.  The single white egg is laid, necessarily, with unerring aim.  To escape the eyes of predators, adults rely on the camouflage of their plumage augmented, if even slightly threatened, by a slow, steady rocking motion that transforms the speckled, rufous lump of a bird into a dead leaf with holes in it stirred by the breeze!  (Watch the 1-minute video below to see this.)

The chick is an absolutely adorable creature that resembles a bird only vaguely.  Covered in cute little rufous-and-black curls and pinfeathers with a fierce stare and outsized feet to secure it atop its stub, it hopes, best-case, to be passed off as a tuft of rotting vegetation.  For those fearful moments, however, the Rufous Potoo chick reserves a threat display as shocking as any I have experienced in the world of birds.  If you get too close (as I did only once!), the tiny beast suddenly lunges forward with its mouth hugely open to flash a startling pink gape; it truly made me gasp and shiver, so unanticipated was it. Here’s a collage of three images of a chick:

Indeed, the Rufous Potoo is the oddest member of the bizarre and ancient potoo lineage, and recent studies including molecular analysis indicate that it deserves a separate, monotypic genus.  If you haven’t yet had the great luck to see a Rufous Potoo, you have a wonderful treat in store for you one day…or more likely, one starry, moonlit Amazonian night.

Check out the video below of an adult Rufous Potoo, especially the gentle rocking motion mentioned above (very cool!) and the amazing eye. For best resolution after you’ve started the video playing, click on the “360” button at the lower right to choose the higher-resolution “480” setting.

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…)

Colombia: Recurve-billed Bushbird

I was playing tic-tac-toe with the bushbird’s head. Cross branches of bamboo several feet deep between me and a lifer look. Something is crawling up my pant leg (don’t scratch), sweat dripping down my forehead (don’t swipe), don’t move I told myself. The black object had made progress towards our small group, calling much of the time, now it was perched just in front of us. Easy, easy, take a step slowly to one side…

Success! Guide Richard Webster captured this evocative image of the bushbird he and Jesse spotted with their group on a recent Field Guides Colombia tour.

The Recurve-billed Bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii), as it is awkwardly (for me, anyways) called, went nearly 40 years without a single documented record. C. alixii was once thought to be endemic to northern Colombia, but it was rediscovered in the Sierra de Perija of Venezuela near the Colombian border in April 2004. That find was part of a Rapid Assessment Program team involving Venezuelan Audubon, the Phelps Collection, with financial support from Conservation International. With this confirmed sighting, interest shifted back to Colombia, a country quietly but steadfastly healing after years of internal conflict and neglect by the birding community. Sure enough, a year later, Colombia had its rediscovery by Oscar Laverde at Agua de la Virgen, near the bustling city of Ocaña. Thankfully, for us and the bushbird, it has now been recorded at several more sites.

My expectations of this bird were that the bill was going to be bigger than the bird. I think in part because every photo I had seen of it was taken at an angle, bill on and bird-in-hand, which exaggerates its size in comparison to the head. So, when I finally did see this bird my first impression was, “Well, cool, the bill is much smaller than I thought.” However, the bill is big, the culmen nearly straight, with the mandible curving up to meet the bill tip. Why does it have such a bill structure? Gusanos, amigo. Worms and bamboo, dude. The bushbird uses its bill to slice open thin bamboo shoots, like slicing open a can of cranberry sauce with a pocket knife. However, once the bill is inserted it is forced upward using the straight-edge to cut the bamboo stalk. Inside, it works to dig out larvae of beetles and other arthropods. Interestingly enough, not all bushbirds have been found within thick bamboo stands (“bushbird” is more appropriate than “bamboobird”), so they are obviously able to survive searching for prey in other ways. So, why have that strange bill?

As Jesse demonstrates, the bushbird uses its bill on bamboo like a can opener, with the resulting tell-tale signs in the image at right above. (Photos by Jesse Fagan)

This bird is truly spectacular. Not a let down. It lives up to all expectations. Rare, certainly local, loud and vocal, and that bizarre bill, this is a bird to see (or try to). Deep within the bamboo, I managed to get one decent photo of the bird. Not great, but it captured a split second in a memorable experience for our group on the recent Field Guides BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA tour I co-led with Richard Webster, who scouted and developed this exciting itinerary.

Use the player below to listen to my recording of the bushbird:

[If you have trouble using the player, here’s the direct mp3 file link.]

And did you know? Currently, Clytoctantes is not monotypic. The Rondonia Bushbird (C. atrogularis), equally rare and local, was only recently discovered in 1984 from a small area of southwest Brazil. There are currently just four reports of this species, and no male specimens. Despite outward similarities and behavior with C. alixii, the vocalizations of Rondonia Bushbird appear closer to Black Bushbird (Neoctanes niger) and according to Bret Whitney would keep C. alixii “within a monotypic genus despite similarities to Rondonia Bushbird.” You can discover additional information about the Recurve-billed Bushbird at Birdlife International.

We have a whole lot of Colombia coming up in our 2011 schedule, with 3 distinct itineraries and 4 departures.  Jesse will be returning for COLOMBIA: BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA while Richard will guide both our COLOMBIA: THE CAUCA VALLEY, WESTERN & CENTRAL ANDES and COLOMBIA: SANTA MARTA ESCAPE tours. A few spaces remain open as of this posting.

Panama Tours: An Overview

We’ve put together an overview page for our various tours to Panama, from Western Panama to Wild Darien in the eastern part of the country, with the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge trips in between. If you’re not quite sure which trips are the right ones for you, this is a great place to start your selection process!  Visit the Panama page

Views from Panama, from left: Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Crested Guan, birding the forest in western Panama, and Spectacled Owl (Photos by guide George Armistead, participants Markus Lagerqvist, Marcy Clements, and Paul Thomas)
Views from Panama, from left: Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Crested Guan, birding the forest in western Panama, and Spectacled Owl (Photos by guide George Armistead and participants Markus Lagerqvist, Marcy Clements, and Paul Thomas)

Note that we also have overview pages, each linked from the right sidebar on this and every News page, for our multiple itineraries to the following countries:

Brazil —— Colombia —— Ecuador —— Peru

The Simple Beauty of Flight

Here’s a post for the pure and simple aesthetic enjoyment of birds. Summer is our Galapagos season with multiple trips, and guide George Armistead returned with a set of lovely pics of everything from Sally Lightfoot crabs to sea lions to tree finches and Galapagos Rail. We thought it would be fun to focus on just a few of George‘s airborne ones from the tour and the incredible lightness of their beings.

An Elliot's Storm-Petrel floats above the surface...
...and magically puts winglift and surface tension to work as it 'walks' on water.

Two caramel-headed juvenile Great Frigatebirds practice their aerobatic skills over Tower Island.
Two caramel-headed juvenile Great Frigatebirds practice aerobatics over Tower Island.
Red-billed Tropicbird over Española
A Red-billed Tropicbird cruises by Española.
Swallow-tailed Gull with a morsel over Española
Swallow-tailed Gull with a morsel over Española
Waved Albatross over the breeding grounds at Española
Waved Albatross passes over the colony at Española.
...and participants Lance and Peter marveling at the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel colony on Tower Island.
And the simple joy of marveling at the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel colony on Tower, far-northeastern outlier of the Galapagos archipelago.