A “Nowhere but Northeast Brazil” experience

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…

Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Brazil
A male Ruby-topaz Hummingbird flashes through those flowers. (Photo by participant Markus Lagerqvist)

“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…

Collared Crescentchest, Brazil
Collared Crescentchest at the same stop, photographed by participant Markus Lagerqvist

“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!”

Horned Sungem, Brazil
Horned Sungem, a Brazilian specialty and fantastic bird (as are so many hummers!), photographed by guide Bret Whitney

Check out our Nowhere but Northeast Brazil! tour page for more info on our January 2013 and 2014 departures.

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.

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.

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.