Saturday, 10 October 2015

Norfolk moths: Rockland St. Peter garden, 9 October 2015

After a sunny day, completely clear skies all night made for a temperature of 12.0°C when I turned on the MV light at 19h00 and 9.1°C when I turned it off at 06h00. A light E air, felt as a slight but persistent chill breeze by dawn. Two buzzing Hornets in the trap had me turn off the trap before dawn (I have a thriving Hornet's nest in a bird box just a few metres from the trap). Waning crescent moon.

Nothing unfamiliar, and something of a relief to have so little morning work!

Macro-moths (17 moths of 11 spp.):-

Chloroclysta truncata Common Marbled Carpet

Epirrita sp. Epirrita species

Colotois pennaria Feathered Thorn

Agrotis segetum Turnip Moth

Aporophyla nigra Black Rustic

Lithophane leautieri Blair's Shoulder-knot

Allophyes oxyacanthae Green-brindled Crescent

Agrochola lota Red-line Quaker

Agrochola lychnidis Beaded Chestnut

Xanthia togata Pink-barred Sallow

Xanthia icteritia Sallow


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Neotropical Birding 17 is out!

Neotropical Birding 17 is printed and has been available at the UK Birdfair since Friday. I was there today and enjoyed seeing the Neotropical Bird Club stand. This issue has been assembled in record time – six weeks – but is nevertheless one of the most satisfying numbers I have put together. Photos of what will now be recognised as a "new" species of owl for North America (Strix sartorii), the article on Sierra de Perijá and the nice image of PterodromaStercorarius interspecific social dominance mimicry (ISDM) are my highlights. I had some really nice unsolicited comments from people at the Birdfair - thank you all! 

Welcome to issue 17 of Neotropical Birding! 

You've heard of Africa's Big Five and Big Seven, but the average birder prefers the Big Six. Where in the world? Of course, it's the Paraguayan Chaco. Our veteran ornithologists Paul Smith and Rob Clay take us on a tour that targets the Chaco Big Six – figuratively, although they will literally be taking a group there on one of our regular NBC Fundraising tours later this year. They might even throw in a couple of extras that could one day make a Paraguayan Big Eight!

For a break from the heat, try some Andean birding in the isolated mountain range of Perijá on the Colombia-Venezuela border. This little-visited and relatively neglected range has been explored with some difficulty from the Venezuelan side, resulting in some remarkable discoveries in recent years. Travelling to the Colombian side, Trevor Ellery takes us to ProAves' newly-established Chamicero del Perijá (Perija Thistletail) Reserve. The lodge gives access to birds that were the stuff of dreams about only three or four years ago, including what will almost certainly be recognised as an endemic “Rufous” Antpitta, Grallaria (rufula) saltuensis, as well as the eponymous thistletail.

The second of our Birding Sites is the Río Bigal Biological Reserve in eastern Ecuador, a favourite of Juan Freile, Vincent Mouret and Mathieu Siol. Nestled in the Andean foothills, the reserve enjoys the best of both worlds, with a heady avifaunal mix of Amazonian and Andean species – and some really special birds characteristic of these elevations like the poorly-known, but stunning Pink-throated Brilliant Heliodoxa gularis.

In our last issue, Steve Howell examined Markham's Storm Petrel identification at sea. This time Fabrice Schmitt dispenses with the dramamine and takes us to recently-discovered Markham's Storm Petrel breeding colonies in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The nest sites of Ringed Storm Petrel remain a mystery – but for how long?

Sticking with seabirds, Alex Lees, Fabio Olmos and Alberto Campos go pelagic birding off the coast of NE Brazil. Their targets? Trindade Petrel Pterodroma arminjoniana tops a list that could include just about anything. Their article includes quite a few species for which there are only a handful of Brazilian records.

But if a handful of records is not exclusive enough, and you have a penchant for those really elusive birds, then they do not come much more enigmatic than Mexico's mystery Cinereous Owl Strix (“varia”) sartorii. Birding at the Cutting Edge, Nathan Pieplow and Andrew Spencer present the first photographs and sonograms, and tell us all about one of the most exciting encounters in North American birding for some time.

Our Globally Threatened Bird, the Colombian endemic Chestnut-capped Piha Lipaugus weberi, was only discovered in 1999 and is already Endangered – perhaps even Critically Endangered. This reinforces an idea that crops up with alarming regularity in Neotropical Birding: species becoming extinct even before we know them.

Alex Lees' invites you to “Get your lists out!” one last time for his final thoughts on Splits, lumps and shuffles. This is the column that turns everyone into an armchair taxonomist, providing fuel for arguments over the sanity of the AOU or IOC, Clements or HBW / BirdLife. Birdwise, it's the usual suspects once again: Pyrrhura parakeets, woodcreepers and Splitalopus. But should you have been paying more attention to those Grey-necked Wood Rails and Red-crowned Ant Tanagers – a probable future armchair tick or two for anyone who has been to both Central and South America?

As ever, Jez Bird brings us his regular NBC Conservation Awards Update. NBC continues to finance vital projects to conserve Neotropical Birds. Please join the Club if you would like to support our valuable work.

And finally, I would like to thank all our contributors, many of whom supplied unique material to meet a very tight schedule, writing articles, answering requests and sending photographs directly from the field. Thank you for sparing the time to make NB17 possible. I owe a special debt of gratitude to those who provide first class text and images for every issue, helping us unconditionally – you know who you are, and our readers do too!

Happy Neotropical birding!

Christopher J. Sharpe, Senior Editor

Neotropical Birding 17: contents

Sharpe, C. J. (2015) Welcome to issue 17 of Neotropical Birding. Neotrop. Birding 17: 2–3.

Schmitt, F., Barros, R. & Norambuena, H. (2015) Markham’s Storm Petrel breeding colonies discovered in Chile. Neotrop. Birding 17: 5–10. [Oceanodroma markhami, Oceanodroma hornbyi, Oceanites gracilis] E-mail: fabrschmitt at yahoo dot com

Lees, A. C., Olmos, F. & Campos, A. (2015) Here be gadflies: pelagic birding off north-east Brazil. Neotrop. Birding 17: 11–18. [Pterodroma arminjoniana, Calonectris
borealis, Oceanodroma leucorhoa, Stercorarius pomarinus; nice image of PterodromaStercorarius interspecific social dominance mimicry (ISDM)] E-mail: alexanderlees at btopenworld dot com

Lees, A. C. (2015) Splits, lumps and shuffles. Neotrop. Birding 17: 19–27. [resume of recent publications on taxonomy and systematics concerning multiple taxa] E-mail: alexanderlees at btopenworld dot com

Sharpe, C. J. (2015) Chestnut-capped Piha Lipaugus weberi. Neotrop. Birding 17: 28–31. E-mail: sharpebirder at gmail dot com

Pieplow, N. & Spencer, A. (2015) Finding Mexico’s mystery owl—Cinereous Owl Strix (varia?) sartorii. Neotrop. Birding 17: 34–39. [Strix sartorii, Strix varia, Strix fulvescens] E-mail: npieplow at gmail dot com

Smith, P. & Clay, R. P. (2015) Birding the Paraguayan Dry Chaco—The Big Six. Neotrop. Birding 17: 40–46. [Eudromia formosa, Chunga burmeisteri, Dryocopus schulzi, Strix chacoensis, Spiziapteryx circumcincta, Rhinocrypta lanceolata] E-mail: faunaparaguay at gmail dot com

Freile, J.F., Mouret, V. & Siol, M. (2015) Amidst a crowd of birds: Birding Río Bigal, Ecuador. Neotrop. Birding 17: 47–55. [E Andean Ecuadorian foothill specialities, e.g. Heliodoxa gularis] E-mail: jfreileo at yahoo dot com

Ellery, T. (2015) The Serranía del Perijá—an exciting new destination in Colombia. Neotrop. Birding 17: 58–67. [Perijá endemic taxa, e.g. Metallura iracunda, Metallura tyrianthina districta, Coeligena (bonapartei) consita, Grallaria ("rufula") saltuensis, Scytalopus perijanus, Asthenes gularis, Synallaxis unirufa munoztebari, Anisognathus lacrymosus pallididorsalis, Arremon perijanus, Atlapetes (latinuchus) nigrifrons] E-mail: trevor_lotan at hotmail dot com

Jeffers, R. (2015) Club news. Forthcoming NBC fundraising tours. Neotrop. Birding 17: 70. 

Bird, J. (2015) NBC Conservation Awards update. Neotrop. Birding 17: 71–74. [Vultur gryphus, Pyrrhura griseipectus] E-mail: jezbird at gmail dot com

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Hay-making on Chapel Green, Rocklands

Today we made our main annual cut of the Chapel Green hay meadow in Rocklands. For the past several years, this small (c. 0·01 ha) recovered grassland has been managed as a wildflower meadow. Since I was a boy, such meadows have all but disappeared from the United Kingdom, many of them being ploughed up, converted to pasture or built on; in all, 97% of our meadows have been lost since World War II and it is now our most endangered type of vegetation. As in many other matters, Rocklands has bucked the trend and our modest patch of flower-rich grassland has been improving in quality even in the short five years that we have lived here. Chapel Green is an asset of which the village can be justifiably proud.

Common Blue Polyommatus icarus
Traditional meadows grow on soils which have been impoverished by many years of grazing, which constantly removes nutrients from the soil. A regime of late-summer cutting, just after the flowers have set seed, and subsequent removal of the hay keeps nutrients low and enables the more interesting and less widespread plants to flourish. From the nodding heads of Cowslips Primula veris that herald the spring, through the June carpet of yellow Bird's-foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus and Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor to late summer Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, there is always something in bloom. The purple spikes of Knapweed Centaurea nigra and yellow discs of Fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica attract butterflies which add to the palette: we have over a dozen species, and resident colonies of Essex Skipper Thymelicus lineola, Common Blue Polyommatus icarus and gaudy Six-spot Burnet Zygaena filipendulae moths. A careful observer might find the curious Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera – no longer a common plant and seven of which flowered in 2014 – or Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the first spike of which appeared this summer. In all, the green is home to fifty species of flowering plants. Insects and seeds attract the birds, and Swallows and Swifts skim over the grass, Goldfinches worry the seedheads and owls hope for a vole – Barn, Tawny and Little Owls all visit. The population of Field Voles reaches such levels that on the 2013 cut the fleeing mammals were almost biblical in proportions. Chapel Green's pond is home to Great Crested Newts Triturus cristatus, Grass Snakes Natrix natrix and several types of dragonfly. Kingfishers check in from time to time; our first, bitterly cold winter a Snipe huddled in our drainage ditch, while last year a Sedge Warbler established its territory in the tall Great Willowherb Epilobium hirsutum and Reedmace Typha latifolia at the water margin.

After the cut, we will wait for the aftermath to emerge, close-cut perhaps two or three times more and then let the meadow settle down for the winter. All we need to maintain this rich and diverse meadow is to continue the regime of late-summer cuts, remove the resulting hay, and ensure that cars do not park on the area in winter; nature will do the rest. Let's enjoy this wonderful asset to our village.
Finest quality hay, waiting to be bagged and removed

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Six-spot Burnets emerge on Chapel Green, Rocklands

The most favourable day for insects so far this year: a mostly sunny morning, with temperatures pulling above 22°C by midday. Over the last weeks or so, Six-spot Burnet Zygaena filipendulae caterpillars have been leaving off feeding on the Bird's Foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus to climb up the stems of taller grasses to pupate. Today there were several caterpillars, three pupae and the first adult of the year.

The Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra has just come into flower and, in addition to the burnets, there were single of several species of butterfly: Essex Skipper Thymelicus lineola, Large Skipper Ochlodes sylvanus, Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina and Small Tortoishell Aglais urticae.

Large Skipper Ochlodes sylvanus

After seven spikes in 2014, the Bee Orchids are absent this year. However, a Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii - a new species for the green - compensates.

Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Neotropical Birding 16 is being distrbuted

Our Spring issue is a little tardy this year to match the lateness of the season...

Welcome to issue 16 of Neotropical Birding! 

We're straight into the thick of it in this issue with Alex Lees' regular Splits, lumps and shuffles column, which once again trawls the murky depths of Neotropical systematics and taxonomy. This issue includes a sobering image of two recently-described and likely extinct Brazilian furnariids. How many taxa are we losing before we have time to catalogue them?

Fortunately, our Globally Threatened Bird, the Endangered Speckle-chested Piculet Picumnus steindachneri looks set to escape their fate and may turn out to be more widespread than previously suspected. Woodpecker nut Gerard Gorman has photographs.

Our first Identification Workshop focusses on at-sea Identification of Black and Markham’s Storm Petrels. The latter is a Data Deficient species, the conservation status of which is confounded by identification challenges. Its true status is only just becoming clear and happily it may turn out to be of minor conservation concern. Steve Howell is our guide, and provides our cover photo of the coveted Markham’s Storm Petrel. A very different identification pitfall is the result of pollen staining, as illustrated by mysterious Euphonias in French Guiana.

The LSU team that achieved last year's Peru Big Day record provide a blow-by-blow account of what it is like to be Birding at the Cutting Edge.

Our compilation of recent published and unpublished records, Neotropical Notebook, is collated for the last time by Guy Kirwan. His team of collaborators are Dušan Brinkhuizen, Diego Calderón, Bradley Davis and Jeremy Minns.

NBC continues to raise money to finance projects that conserve Neotropical Birds. Jez Bird tells us about this year's award winners and the continuing benefits of projects financed in the past in NBC Conservation Awards Update. Your contribution to NBC helps Award recipients give something back to the Neotropical birds we all enjoy.

We round off the issue with a Book Review of one of the most exciting bird books of the past year: the first volume of the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World.

Happy Neotropical birding!

Christopher J. Sharpe, Senior Editor

Neotropical Birding 16: contents

Sharpe, C. J. (2015) Welcome to issue 16 of Neotropical Birding. Neotrop. Birding 16: 2.

Lees, A. C. (2015) Splits, lumps and shuffles. Neotrop. Birding 16: 4–15. [resume of recent publications on taxonomy and systematics concerning multiple taxa] E-mail: alexanderlees at btopenworld dot com

Gorman, G. & Sharpe, C. J. (2015) Speckle-chested Piculet Picumnus steindachneri. Neotrop. Birding 16: 18–21. E-mail: gerard at probirder dot com

Howell, S. N. G. (2015) Identification of Black and Markham’s Storm Petrels off Peru. Neotrop. Birding 16: 22–26. [Halocyptena (= Oceanodroma) melania, Oceanodroma markhami].

Deville, T., Pelletier, V., Claessens, O. & Ingels, J. (2015) Euphonias using pollen make-up: an identification pitfall. Neotrop. Birding 16: 27–31. [Euphonia minuta, Leiothlypis peregrina] E-mail: tanguy.deville at gmail dot com

Seeholzer, G., Harvey, M., Lane, D. & Angulo, F. (2015) LSU Peru Big Day 2014. Neotrop. Birding 16: 33–42. [specialities of Alto Mayo region, NE Peru] E-mail: seeholzer.glenn at gmail dot com

Kirwan, G. M., Brinkhuizen, D., Calderón, D., Davis, B. & Minns, J. (2015) Neotropical Notebook: published and unpublished records. Neotrop. Birding 16: 43–62. [resume of recent records concerning multiple taxa] E-mail: gmkirwan at aol dot com

Bird, J. (2015) NBC Conservation Awards update. Neotrop. Birding 16: 63–67. [Amazona
vinacea, A. oratrix
] E-mail: jezbird at gmail dot com

Sharpe, C. J. (2015) Book review: HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated
Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1. Neotrop. Birding 16: 68–69. E-mail: neotropical.birding at neotropicalbirdclub dot org html PDF



Sunday, 7 June 2015

Norfolk moths: Rockland St. Peter garden, 6 June 2015

After a relatively warm (18°C) and intermittently sunny day, completely clear skies all night, with temperatures of 13.0°C when I turned on the MV light at 21h45 and 9.7°C when I turned it off at 04h00. A light ESE air. Waning gibbous moon.

It took me half an hour to record the catch. A May Highflyer had settled just below the light, while a Privet Hawk-moth was resting on cut branches alongside the trap.

Macro-moths (23 moths of 12 spp.):-

Colostygia pectinataria Green Carpet 2
Hydriomena impluviata May Highflyer 1
Sphinx ligustri Privet Hawk-moth 1
Calliteara pudibunda Pale Tussock 1
Spilosoma lubricipeda White Ermine 3
Agrotis exclamationis Heart and Dart 5
Xestia c-nigrum Setaceous Hebrew Character 1
Discestra trifolii Nutmeg 1
Rusina ferruginea Brown Rustic 1
Oligia strigilis agg. Marbled Minor agg. 1
Charanyca trigrammica Treble Lines 5
Diachrysia chrysitis Burnished Brass 1

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Norfolk moths: Rockland St. Peter garden, 23 May 2015

Lychnis Hadena bicruris
It has been a cold spring, particularly compared to the glorious balmy season last year, so I have not felt too bad about not having time to dust off the Skinner trap. I confess that feeling the temperature plunge towards the end of the afternoon was the deciding factor in putting out the trap: I knew that it would not take long to process the small catch. After a warm (18°C) and partly sunny day, skies remained largely clear for most of the night, with temperatures of 12.0°C when I turned on the MV light at 21h30 and 6.5°C when I turned it off at 04h00. A light S air brought with it more than a hint of damp. The waxing crescent moon quickly set, with the new moon having been on 18 May. A Robin and a Blackbird arrived at the trap at 04h10, but there was nothing for them outside the trap.

As suspected, the catch was meagre, but not without interest. A newly-emerged Chocolate-tip was very smart indeed. Lychnis is new for the site and the appearance of three of them coincides with the flowering of Ragged-Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi on the adjacent Chapel Green. Moths of the genus Hadena are specialised to feed on plants of the campion family (Caryophyllaceae), of which Ragged-Robin is a member, but at no small cost to the plant, since the larva can devour much of the seed production. While Red Silene dioica and White Campion S. latifolia seed pods are the favoured food of Lychnis caterpillars, and the adult moths target the nectar of their host-plants, I like to imagine the adults visiting the night-blooming Ragged-Robin that is flowering in profusion next door. At least this would vindicate the name.

Light Brocade is a local moth that I caught at about this time last year.

Macro-moths (11 moths of 7 spp.):-

Clostera curtula Chocolate-tip 1
Diaphora mendica Muslin Moth 3
Agrotis exclamationis Heart and Dart 1
Lacanobia w-latinum Light Brocade 1
Hadena bicruris Lychnis 3
Charanyca trigrammica Treble Lines 1
Abrostola tripartita Spectacle 1

Saturday, 14 March 2015

First Chiffchaff of the year and Willow Tit at Thompson Water

Singing Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
A quick lunchtime picnic at Thompson Water was rewarded with the first Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita of the year: at least three or four males singing and chasing around the anglers' area. An unfamiliar song, reminiscent of that of several antbirds – a rather deliberate three second series of downslurred pure-tone notes repeated seven or eight times on same pitch: piu-piu-piu-piu-piu-piu-piu-piu – proved to be a Willow Tit Parus montanus. This bird showed a well-marked pale secondary panel.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Belize 2015: first day at Chan Chich

The next morning my eyes open long before dawn and my ears take in the night-time soundscape of the forest at Chan Chich. This is one of my favourite places in which to wake up: I love to lie in the guides' cabin here and just listen to the forest come alive. Owls often sing in the pre-dawn: Spectacled Pulsatix perspicillata, Mottled Ciccaba virgata, Vermiculated Screech Megascops guatemalae and Central American Pygmy Owls Glaucidium griseiceps have all been heard on past mornings. Sometimes a Pheasant Cuckoo Dromococcyx phasianellus gives its disembodied trill. As the sky lightens Yucatán Black Howler Monkeys Alouatta pigra frequently roar. And just before first light, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper Xiphocolaptes promeropirhynchus will usually sing just two or three times, to be answered by a rival on the other side of the clearing and yet another deeper within the forest. But today I am out in the lodge clearing, coffee in hand, well before first light. It's great to be back!

Our first surprise is a newcomer to the lodge: Band-backed Wren Campylorhynchus zonatus, a bird of drier, non-forest areas. This is one of suite of dry-country birds that have arrived over the decades since the lodge opened. A lone male apparently arrived towards the end of 2014 and – like most wrens – began singing to establish his territory while he built a series of nests to offer to a potential female. It is new for Chan Chich. Huge Crested Guans Penelope purpurascens sit prominently in the canopy trees, giving spectacular views with the low sun shining through their red dewlaps. WE manage to scope three Brown-hooded Parrots Pyrilia haematotis that fly into the crown of a tall Strangler Fig.

White-whiskered Puffbirds Malacoptila panamensis
The rest of the day is spent exploring the trails and becoming reacquainted with the signature birds of the Chan Chich forests. After breakfast we start at the suspension bridge, with wonderful looks at a pair of perched White Hawks Pseudastur albicollis and an immature Double-toothed Kite Harpagus bidentatus. Species from the quintessentially Neotropical families dominate: hummingbirds, Furnariids, woodcreepers, antbirds, tyrant flycatchers. Blue Ground Doves Claravis pretiosa and White-whiskered Puffbirds Malacoptila panamensis are all over the place this year – impossible to miss.

In the Cohune Attalea cohune forest, Chan Chich
Our afternoon consists of a short walk around the Back Plaza where we find a beautiful Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker Celeus castaneus and a singing male White-throated Thrush Turdus assimilis. We reach the Aguada as the light begins to fail. As usual, there are wintering migrants like Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina, Hooded Warbler Setophaga citrina and Louisiana Waterthrush Parkesia motacilla as well as a resident male Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda. A Great Tinamou Tinamus major and a Scaly-throated Leaftosser Sclerurus guatemalensis sing, but we are unable to find them in the gathering darkness.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Belize 2015: arriving at Chan Chich

Gallon Jug from the air - looking SSW
Chan Chich is Mayan for “little bird”, and there are lots of them on the property – some 340 species*. Opened in 1988, this private reserve extends over 52,000 ha and adjoins the even larger 93,432 ha Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area run by Programme for Belize. Most of this area, with the exception of 1,200 ha of cleared agricultural land at Gallon Jug, is cloaked in humid forest of various kinds. Access to the reserve is by air or a private unsurfaced road.

I have been visiting Chan Chich annually since first being shown the place by Rick Taylor in 2001. In the 1990s, Rick had continually regaled me with stories of this mythical place, accounts in which Chan Chich was typically accompanied by words like “the best jungle lodge in the world” or “wait until you see...”. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chan Chich is that it has changed so little over the years. Sure enough, the original builders (including Norm, the latter-day barman) have moved on, the incredibly birdy dump has been filled in (for health reasons), the mahogany poles of the suspension bridge have been replaced by steel, a few extra cabins have been built, and our old guides' quarters have been crushed by a tree toppled by Hurricane Richard. But the atmosphere of the pace remains the same, in large part because the staff date from the 1980s and 1990s.

Jaguar Panthera onca
We typically drive in to Chan Chich from Crooked Tree, a trip that takes us about five hours. This may seem like a poor use of birding time, but in fact the drive in has provided some extraordinary sightings over the years, from huge clouds of migrating Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica to Yucatán speciality birds like Black-throated Bobwhite Colinus nigrogularis, and from scarce wintering waterfowl feeding in the flooded rice fields at Blue Creek to a Jaguar Panthera onca flashing across the road. In fact, this is one of the best places in the world to encounter Jaguars. It also gives an idea of the size and relative isolation of this conservation area and provides an opportunity to see the Mexican and Mennonite villages along the way. The sterile Mennonite lands contrast starkly with the lush, vibrant humid forest. Over the years, the forest boundary has been pushed back several kilometres by Mennonite bulldozers to make way for pastureland and soy bean fields.

Adult Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus
This year the drive in is fairly quiet as far as Blue Creek, but as soon as we pass the Rio Bravo barrier the action begins. A toilet break gives as close looks at two White-necked Puffbirds Notharchus hyperrhynchus in a roadside Cecropia. These are often hard to find at Chan Chich but we will end up seeing five by the end of the tour. As we study them, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle Spizaetus melanoleucus soars over the road showing its characteristic white leading edge while a Black Hawk-Eagle S. tyrannus sails in the opposite direction. A little further on, Moez spots an adult Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus, an uncommon and thinly-spread winter visitor to these forests.


* Steve Smith and I are compiling a checklist of the birds of Chan Chich based on specimens and documented sight records. We currently have verified records for some 340 species.

Belize 2015: Crooked Tree Lagoon

Great Black Hawk Buteogallus urubitinga
The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a low (3–15 m), flat, seasonally flooded wetland in central Belize. In 2000 it was designated a 6,637 ha Ramsar Site and is now co-managed by the Government of Belize and Belize Audubon Society. No trip to Belize is complete without a boat trip on Crooked Tree Lagoon. The birding varies markedly with water level. In my experience, at this time of year low waters produce better birding, with a good chance of seeing shorebirds, kingfishers and specialities like Jabiru Jabiru mycteria, Sungrebe Heliornis fulica and Agami Heron Agamia agami. High water levels – like those we have today – are typically less productive, but good for migratory wildfowl, especially diving duck. Over the years, the local boatmen-guides Lennie and Michael have become so experienced that even with high water they always have something of interest to show, thus ensuring that every day is a good day for a boat trip.

Roosting Proboscis Bats Rhynchonycteris naso
But before we head out on the boat, we like to explore the adjoining pine savannas in the cool of the morning. Arriving at a clearing at dawn, the first sound we hear belongs to Yucatán Jay Cyanocorax yucatanicus, but these birds seem to have become shy and will not grace us with an appearance. Next we hear the harsh calls of Yucatán Parrot Amazona xantholora and, by manoeuvring a little, we are able to get a wonderful scope view of a bird perched on a pine top just 50 metres away. The rest of the parrots are all White-fronted Amazona albifrons – we were lucky to have the one Yucatán. Before returning to The Bird's Eye View for breakfast, we pick up one or two more widespread dry-country birds.

Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius
Before we have even boarded the boat, Moez has picked up a couple of Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata drilling into the mud in the marsh next to our lodge. With the boat trip under way, we quickly find many of the lagoon's emblematic species: Bare-throated Tiger-Heron Tigrisoma mexicanum, Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis, Great Black Hawk Buteogallus urubitinga, Gull-billed Gelochelidon nilotica and Caspian Terns Hydroprogne caspia, Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus. There are plenty of Ospreys Pandion haliaetus, all of them wintering birds of the North American breeding subspecies carolinensis, in contrast to those on Ambergris which are largely resident ridgwayi. Then, surprisingly with this level of water, an Agami Heron trying to keep well out of sight along a weed-choked channel. On the large area of open water beyond, we see some 80 Fulvous Whistling Duck Dendrocygna bicolor and a dozen Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris, birds only seen here occasionally. In Spanish Creek, a roost of Boat-billed Herons Cochlearius cochlearius numbers over 20 birds. We have been on the water for almost three hours, so must get back quickly for lunch and our long drive to Chan Chich. On the way, a distant Sterna tern catches my attention: Forster's Tern S. forsteri! Not common here, it is the only new bird for Belize that I will see during the trip. Michael tells us he has never seen one – can he be right? Since it is flying fast in the direction of the lodge, we speed after it to get a photograph. An exciting end to a really good boat trip. 

Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Belize 2015: Caracol & Mountain Pine Ridge

Rediscovered by a mahogany prospector in 1937, Caracol is now known to have been one of the most important Mayan regional political centres during the Classic Period. At its peak it was twice the size of present day Belize City and powerful enough to conquer the much better known site of Tikal in 562 AD. Constructed on the Vaca Plateau, Caracol overlooks the surrounding lowlands and the highest structure – indeed, the highest man made structure in Belize – Caana, affords panoramic views over forested terrain and into Guatemala. Spreading over 200 km2, the largely unrestored complex is today covered with secondary forests that provide excellent habitat for birds. It is a wonderful place to enjoy a wealth of typical Central American humid forest birds along with regional specialities like Tody Motmot Hylomanes momotula. Until 2006, this was a reliable site for Keel-billed Motmot Electron carinatum, but the birds appear to have disappeared.

Our Caracol day began when dawn finally caught up with us near the Macal River. Apart from the dozen or so Pauraques Nyctidromus albicollis that we had flushed off the road as we drove over Mountain Pine Ridge in the darkness, our first birds were Ocellated Turkeys Meleagris ocellata, Crested Guans Penelope purpurascens and Great Curassows Crax rubra that we surprised as they strolled along the entrance road. On reaching Caracol, the sounds of dozens of parrots and toucans were amplified by the early morning mist. As usual, we had difficulty eating our picnic breakfast, and by the time we had supped the last coffee we had already found a score of new species. The morning was our usual mix of Mayan archaeology and birding, by the end of which we had obtained definitive views of three species of parrot, seen all four Belizean trogons and sampled a wide a selection of tropical residents and migrants. As often happens at this time of year, the overnight arrival of a minor cold front had depressed activity slightly.

After lunch we made our way back to the Macal River, the only place on our itinerary where one might reasonably hope to see Scarlet Macaw Ara macao and were rewarded with scope views of two pairs. A side trip to the Rio Frio Cave added Green Shrike-Vireo Vireolanius pulchellus and an exceptionally good view of a male Black-throated Shrike-Tanager Lanio aurantius.

Mountain Pine Ridge has a number of special birds. The taxon notius of the Plumbeous Vireo Vireo plumbeus complex is Belize's only endemic. There are outlying populations of north temperate species like Greater Pewee Contopus pertinax, Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis and Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra, all of which are hard to find. It has traditionally been the easiest place anywhere within its patchy range to find Stygian Owl Asio stygius, and the presence of breeding Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus, Montane Solitary Eagle Buteogallus solitarius and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle Spizaetus melanoleucus has made it an obligatory birding stop. The ecology of the raptors of this area is fully described in the excellent Neotropical Birds of Prey.

Adult King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa

♂ Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus, 1000' Falls

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Belize 2015: Ambergris Caye

Another spring, another exciting trip to one of my favourite wildlife destinations: Belize. February is the usual slot for my annual birding trip for Tucson-based Borderland Tours. All thoughts of winter, the effects of an overnight bus and two days of travel, the dehumanisation of the absurd Miami Airport “Homeland Security” regime are instantly banished as you board the Tropic Air Caravan flight to San Pedro. And after fifteen minutes over the Caribbean, you are on Ambergris. Even though it has changed beyond recognition in recent years, the island retains the atmosphere of a place to relax. Of course, co-leader Moez and I are not here to relax: we're here to work. Throwing our bags into our rooms, we want to take advantage of the last hour of light by hurrying to the nearest available habitat: the desalination plant. Here we find our first Black Catbird Melanoptila glabrirostris as Mangrove Warblers Setophaga petechia sing their evening melodies. A Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans bellows and a dozen Lesser Nighthawks Chordeiles acutipennis emerge from the mangroves. The birds tell us that we can only be in the Yucatán. 

Mangroves S of San Pedro, with a newly cleared plot.
Next morning we await our pre-dawn taxi to scout potential new birding areas. The dry forest and mangroves have been rapidly cleared south of San Pedro to construct holiday homes, so we are looking for new areas further north. Unusually, our driver does not show up. Still, this is Sunday morning and yesterday night the town celebrated St. Valentine's Day. We take the opportunity to swallow breakfast, then flag down a taxi to “the cut”, where we cross the new Sir Barry Bowen Bridge to the northern part of the island. The habitat is in much better shape here and we quickly find Yucatán endemic Orange Oriole Icterus auratus as well as Plain Chachalaca Ortalis vetula. As the sun burns hotter, we enquire where to rent some form of transport and some friendly hotel guards offer us their bicycles – the perfect way to bird. As we pedal northwards we hear Yucatán Woodpecker Melanerpes pygmaeus and Yucatán Flycatcher Myiarchus yucatanensis and stop to admire a Yucatán Vireo Vireo magister, dapper Mangrove Warblers and a pair of Black-cowled Orioles Icterus prosthemelas. We have already racked up at east 30 Black Catbirds. Bananaquits Coereba flaveola are typically scarce on our Belize itinerary, but we find nearly a dozen here, all of the distinctive Yucatán island subspecies caboti. We have not found Caribbean Dove Leptotila jamaicensis or Caribbean Elaenia Elaenia martinica, species which have all but disappeared south of San Pedro, but they undoubtedly persist here. On a side road to the west across coastal lagoons the beautifully intact mangroves deserve our attention, but we are out of time. Eight Stilt Sandpipers Calidris himantopus feed with the water up to the top of their legs as an immature Hook-billed Kite Chondrohierax uncinatus cruises past – we had already seen a soaring female. This area looks perfect for White-crowned Pigeon Patagioenas leucocephala, although we are perhaps a little early in the year. It is time to return to the hotel to set up logistics and meet the group.

♂ Mangrove Warbler Setophaga petechia
Next morning we're out at first light and ready to show the group the best of the island: the San Pedro Municipal Dump. We know just what our tour participants want to see. As we walk through the adjoining cemetery, the smouldering refuse and abundance of flies look promising. This is insectivore heaven and soon we have seen dozens of migrant warblers and at least 20 Black Catbirds. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus is unusual, but the 60 White Ibis Eudocimus albus are staple dump birds, their immaculate white plumage and ink-dipped wing-tips contrasting with their surroundings. A Yucatán Woodpecker announces its presence only a few metres from us, as do Yellow-billed Caciques Amblycercus holosericeus. As we wander back, we have great views of perched male and female Double-toothed Kites Harpagus bidentatus. A lone drake Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis – unusual on the cayes – is the only bird on the water, but a huge American Crocodile Crocodylus acutus has hauled itself out on the sand.

In the afternoon we take a snorkelling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve where we get to swim with Green Moray Eels Gymnothorax funebris, Nurse Sharks Ginglymostoma cirratum and Southern Stingrays Dasyatis americana. We drift over a couple of full-grown Green Turtles Chelonia mydas, close enough to touch as they graze placidly on the seagrass. It can't match the dump for birding, but has its charms.

The next morning we have time to study a couple of Yucatán Vireos before jumping on the flight back to the mainland.

Yucatán Vireo Vireo magister