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From the Field

May 11:

Paul Holt is finally back in the field! A few images from Taiwan

Taiwan Barbet, arguably one of the island’s smartest, was the first of the endemics we saw. Equally vociferous Black-necklaced and Taiwan Scimitar Babblers the second and third, some almost touchable Taiwan Blue Magpies the fourth, the recently split Striped Prinia the fifth and Taiwan Bamboo Partridge the sixth. And that was only our first day! By the end of the tour we’d seen 32 of the island’s 33 endemics with only the ever elusive Island Thrush eluding us. We’d had great looks at all the island’s gamebirds with Taiwan Partridge seen with young, Mikado Pheasants on two dates and the magnificent ‘bird of the tour’ winning Swinhoe’s Pheasant on three. Other goodies included (eventually) stunning looks at both Taiwan Cupwing and Taiwan Shortwing and a Taiwan Bullfinch that everyone saw. What’s more we’d enjoyed them, and a myriad of endemic subspecies such as the distinctive ardens form of Maroon Oriole, multiple diminutive Golden Parrotbills and the soon to be split island endemic formosanus White-browed Bush Robin amidst some stunning scenery and in great company. We’d explored a large proportion of the Beautiful Island (Isla Formosa), had some fabulous mammal encounters and eaten some delicious food. Every last one of us had been smitten…

 Taiwan Scimitar Babbler (Shun-Zhang Chen)

 Taiwan Fulvetta (photo Shun-Zhang Chen)

Taiwan Barbet (photo Shun-Zhang Chen)

Taiwan 2023 group photo (photo Yenhui Hsu)

Group photo (with guide and his assistants) at the Yami aboriginal village on Lanyu (photo Yenhui Hsu)

May 2:

Luke Seitz reports on our Guatemala tour

Our Guatemala tour in April was simply wonderful, with amazing views of most of the highland specialties and a great bird-filled extension to Tikal.

Let’s start off with perhaps the most surprising moment of the tour, eye-level views of the exquisite and highly localized Azure-rumped Tanager...

 ...not to be outdone by this rather confiding Ocellated Quail!

As always, Pink-headed Warblers were numerous and confiding, like this individual just in the parking lot at Fuentes Georginas...

...although I’m more fond of the stunning Goldman’s Warbler, only a “Yellow-rumped” if you’re incapable of using most of your senses. This species is essentially restricted to the pine-juniper grasslands on one plateau in Guatemala plus a couple nearby volcano tops.

Of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without coffee and local champurradas (a sort of dry biscuit) in hand.

On the extension, we fly a short distance north to the town of Flores, where we try to find a few localized Yucatan endemics. This year, Black Catbird showed better than ever.

The Tikal extension is always full of birds, but for me, the whole experience of standing atop a Mayan temple before dawn and listening to the forest come alive is simply unmatched...the parrots, toucans, and local Orange-breasted Falcon zipping around are just icing on the cake.

Ocellated Turkey must top the list of highlights on any trip to Tikal. Beautiful? Grotesque? You decide.

Two weeks fly by, just like this Plumbeous Kite. I’m already looking forward to next year!

April 27:

Jon Feenstra reports from the Upper Texas Coast

If there’s a place to be birding in North America in late April, it’s the Upper Texas Coast. We were there, and we just got back. Migration was in full swing, and the forests, fields, swamps, and shore were peppered with northbound birds.

One of our favorites seen on multiple days was Prothonotary Warbler.

And Cerulean Warbler!

The Smith Oaks reserve at High Island now has a raised boardwalk putting us right up in the canopy where we could get right up and personal with the birds....

like this Tennessee Warbler.

We could also look down on some things, like Tricolored Herons in various stages of nesting.

Since we had a couple days of wind that were unfavorable for finding songbird migrants, we were also close to much coastal marsh where we could concentrate on resident birds, like Seaside Sparrow.

…or shorebird spectacles, like this phalanx of American Avocets bearing down on some unsuspecting swarm of aquatic invertebrates.

And,  after tough day of birding, the group sits down to another Gulf Coast dinner complete with local oysters.

April 20:

Gavin reports from Panama

Our recently completed spring week at Panama's famous Canopy Tower was followed by a 5-day extension to the Canopy Lodge.  It is always a pleasure to return to these fantastic and unique lodges, surrounded by an excellent mix of habitats and a great diversity of birds.  Some of the highlights this year around the tower included an amazing array of tanagers including Emerald, Bay-headed and Rufous-winged and excellent views of the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker on Cerro Azul, close encounters with birds such as Gartered Trogon, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Masked Tityra and Black-and-White Owl around the tower and snazzy Pacific Antwrens along Achiote Road. 

Around the more montane forests surrounding the lodge we added nearly 100 more species to the triplist, with a few of the highlights being lengthy views of a pair of Crested Bobwhite, a cooperative Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant and a handsome Lesser Yellow-headed Caracara in the lowlands, daily visits by Rufous Motmot and Orange-billed Sparrows at the lodge feeders, and highland species such as Tufted Flycatcher, White Hawk and Rufous Mourner up on Altos de Maria.

In all we tallied just shy of 370 species of birds, including an amazing 47 species of flycatchers and 32 tanagers, as well as a nice array of mammals, reptiles and amphibians (and even a few fish) in 10 days in the field! This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful experience.

Bay-Headed Tanager

Black-and-white Owl

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Common Tody-Flycatcher

Crowned Woodnymph

Emerald Tanager

Gartered Trogon

Golden-hooded Tanager

Green Honeycreeper

Masked Tityra

Pacific Antwren

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Rufous-winged Tanager

Social Flycatcher

Streaked Flycatcher

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker

Summer Tanager

Tropical Mockingbird

Yellow-headed Caracara

Common Basilisk

Crested Bobwhite

Giant Dusky Ameiva

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Orange-billed Sparrow

Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant

Rufous Motmot

Rufous Mourner

Tufted Flycatcher

White Hawk

Zebra-striped Hairstreak

April 11:

Rich Hoyer reports after his recently-completed 'chicken run' in Colorado:

Frank Nicoletti and I just finished a spectacular, gigantic loop drive through the middle of the United States, passing through three states and many small towns with a very congenial and happy group of participants. Incredibly, we managed to see all of the possible species of grouse along the way. The dominant theme in the mountainous, western part of our itinerary was snow – and lots of it on the ground. Fortunately, none fell while we were birding, and while we had some cold mornings and a few days with wind, we were extremely fortunate with the weather.

The very different eastern part of our loop was still affected by a drought, so prairie-chicken numbers were depressed compared to recent years. Thanks to Audubon of Kansas, we still had an exceptional experience at a lek in Gove County, Kansas where a dozen highly animated Lesser Prairie-Chickens were joined by two Greater Prairie-Chickens and a happily displaying but frustrated hybrid. Our fabulous Greater Prairie-Chicken experience in Nebraska was very similar, enhanced by the amazing hospitality of the folks from the McCook/Red Willow County Tourism. The sounds and sights of the displaying and dueling birds just yards away was unforgettable.

Photo by participant Matthew Dryden

 

We added many birds to the list between grouse sites, including this stunning Mountain Bluebird, one of many on the tour.

Photo by Rich Hoyer

 

One of the more memorable roadside stops of the tour was at a park with a pair of Northern Pygmy-Owls.

Photo by Rich Hoyer

 

Birds weren’t the only attraction – we tallied over 20 species of mammals, one highlight being a Red Fox hunting in a snowy field next to a remote highway south of Walden.

Photo by participant Mark Garbrick

 

With so much snow on the ground (Steamboat Springs recorded their third highest snowfall ever this winter), we weren’t surprised to have dipped on Dusky Grouse in all the right locations. So it was a triumphant surprise to have one on our last morning from the parking lot behind our hotel as we were loading for the final drive of the tour.

Photo by Rich Hoyer

April 7:

Ethan Kistler just finished up a spring tour in Morocco

From snow-capped mountains to towering sand dunes, coastal estuaries and palm-lined river courses, Morocco is magically beautiful. The tour began in the Atlas Mountains where we found all of our major targets including Crimson-winged Finch, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, “Atlas” Horned Lark, Barbary Partridge and Moussier’s Redstart. In the gravel plans around Boumalne Dades, we enjoyed various larks including Temminck’s, Thick-billed, and Greater Hoopoe-Larks, Cream-colored Coursers, and Trumpeter Finches, while the scenic gorge above town gave us Tristram’s Warbler and Bonelli’s Eagle. The desert around Merzouga didn’t disappoint with excellent views of sandgrouse, Desert Sparrow, African Desert Warbler, Fulvous Chatterer and two Egyptian Nightjars. The tour concluded around the coastal city of Agadir, where we had a whole host of waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, gulls, and even Razorbills. Of course, the main attraction was the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis, which we had wonderful views of. It’s no wonder Morocco is such an admired birding destination! (photos by Ethan Kistler)

'Atlas" Crimson-winged Finch

'Atlas' Horned Lark

Crowned Sandgrouse

Desert Sparrow

Egyptian Nightjar

White-throated Dipper

March 27:

Jake Mohlmann reports from the field in Nebraska 2023

We recently completed covering just under 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads through the center of America’s Heartland on the WINGS Nebraska 2023 tour.

 Our group in the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World!

Our tour focused on the epic crane migration.

To say it was an unusually cold spring would be an understatement. On both mornings we watched the sunrise along the Platte River numerous ice chunks, some as large as basketballs, greeted us as they bumped up against each other steadily heading downriver. Caught up in the mix was a Snow Goose with an injured wing trying to find its place amongst the current. Of the hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese we saw over the week, this was by far our best look. Also in the large flocks of Snow Geese were a small percentage of Ross’s Geese, easily told apart in flight, especially with a telling picture of them overhead.

A Snow Goose floats amongst ice on the frigid Platte.

Snow Geese flocks contained the smaller Ross’s as well.

Every day we had a chance to run into several sparrow species including flocks of Tree, skulky Fox, and several varieties of Dark-eyed Juncos along the roadsides. By far the highlight of the sparrow show were several very confiding Harris’s Sparrows seen multiple days that sat perfectly still, one even singing his beautiful song our final morning.

Harris’s Sparrow is a midwestern specialty seen quite well.

Some ‘Red’ Fox Sparrows popped up nicely.

Sandhill Cranes were abundant as we watched at sunset as many of the 600,000 estimated birds came pouring in overhead landing to roost in the safety of the central Platte River. At sunset groups came pouring in drove after drove, still arriving after it was too dark to see. When back at sunrise we heard a cacophony, reminiscent of a screaming crowd in a packed professional athletic stadium. This occurred just

as the cranes took off almost all at once to head out for the day’s forage. This is truly an indescribably experience that needs to be experienced to believe!

Droves of Sandhill Cranes pour in at sunset.

The multi-colored sky over the Platte

Sandhill Crane flying by in perfect light.

It seemed like an early migration for some species such as American White Pelicans. In the last seven years this species was not detected, being too early in the year for its normal arrival. This year however was an exception, with pelicans seen multiple days, and quite close at times revealing their breeding ‘knobs’ adorned this time of year.

American White Pelicans were sporting nice knobs.

At any point during the trip if there was a loud noise and flocks of birds taking off it was surely a sign that the predominant aerial predator was nearby. Bald Eagles of all ages cruised up and down the Platte regularly looking for any cranes or waterfowl that may not have made it through the night. These massive birds thrive in this area and rely on their opportunistic feeding methods to survive.

Bald Eagles were on the constant lookout for an easy meal.

Shorebirds are few and far between on this tour and besides the American Woodcock we saw displaying our first night, a Greater Yellowlegs was the only other wader we came across. It was neat hear it calling from afar and eventually land on the frozen river right in front of us. It must have been cold because it didn’t stay long, eventually taking off to find a warmer place to spend the morning. We weren’t far behind it!

A Greater Yellowlegs on the icy Platte.

A memorable moonrise over the trees one morning

A Bison at the Crane Trust

March 11:

Jake Mohlmann reports from Hawaii

We just wrapped up an 8-day adventure in the North Pacific on the spring WINGS Hawaii tour. The species count was impressive, with 85 species encountered on the three islands we explored. Each island held its own surprises, from seabirds to those utilizing the native forests.

We were never far from crashing waves and scenic beaches.

The state of Hawaii is comprised of well over 100 islands, islets, and atolls so perhaps it’s no surprise that seabirds abound on the coastlines. We had a booby sweep with fantastic looks at Brown, Masked, and Red-footed sometimes close enough to touch.

This Red-footed Booby waits near its nest.

Tropicbirds were also well-represented on multiple islands. We ate lunch next to a breeding colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that were performing aerial flight displays with one another, flying backwards in the wind in big loops like a feathered wheel spinning through the sky. It was also memorable to watch White-tailed Tropicbirds fly through the vast expanse of Waimea Canyon with red striated rocks and gushing waterfalls in the background.

Red-tailed Tropicbird during lunch at eye level.

Waimea Canyon’s stunning beauty was apparent.

Hawaii is world famous for its breeding colonies of Albatross, including Laysan, Black-footed and even at least one Short-tailed. We were a bit early for the masses, but just in time to see a very young Laysan Albatross sitting perfectly still under the watchful eye of its parent.

The tour’s “cute” award went to this baby Laysan Albatross

This adult Laysan Albatross kept watch over its chick.

The forest birds in Hawaii are facing extreme challenges every day, from loss of habitat to introduced avian malaria. We focused on each islands endemic species and were able to cross paths with nearly all of them. The group’s favorite place for finding them was hands down in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge protects one of the last remaining stands of montane forest on the big island, and not a place many people get to visit. Soon after exiting our vehicle a begging call brought our attention to an adult Akiapolaau trying to feed its young in the pouring rain. This species is extremely rare and an oddity for its extremely long-decurved upper mandible used for picking tiny insects out of precarious spots. The Hawaiian Creeper did just that, acting like a nuthatch looking over every inch of the tree trunks in search of morsels. Although it exists on multiple islands, we had our best look at the Iiwi, a bright orange flame so spectacular it graces the cover of the bird guide for Hawaii.

The ‘Aki’s’ unique bill was utilized repeatedly for our group.

The Hawaiian Creeper very reminiscent of a nuthatch.

This Iiwi fed on blossoms at eye level.

If you’re a fan of raptors you will definitely need to go to Hawaii. There’s exactly one species, the Hawaiian Hawk, endemic to the Big Island. We saw a pair directly overhead slowly swirling in an updraft over the gently rolling hills.

Hawaiian Hawk is the only raptor we saw, but a good one!

The majority of bird species in Hawaii are introduced birds that have been brought over the last century for various reasons including pest control and simply because they are beautiful. Some of the highlights experienced were multiple species of Munias traveling around in flocks, with Chestnut being our favorite. There aren’t many places one can see three species of cardinal in one trip, but Hawaii is certainly one of them. It was a toss-up between Red Crested and Yellow-billed as to which one took the gold medal for looks. Gamebirds also abound and at any moment a Red Junglefowl or Erckel’s Spurfowl could cross right across the road in front of the van. Our favorite was the male Black Francolin, who we heard several times before finally getting an amazing look of one calling from the top of a mound.

The Chestnut Munias fed in roving flocks.

Yellow-billed Cardinal perched up nicely.

This male Black Francolin called loudly one morning.

March 7:

Steve Howell Reports from Honduras

Steve Howell reports from the conclusion of another great tour to Honduras, a perfect winter getaway to sun and wonderful birding—here lunch under shady trees with a delightful ocean breeze to cool things off.

Birds among almost 300 species we found in our short tour ranged from showy Keel-billed Toucans aka ‘flying bananas’...

To the poorly known Slate-colored Seedeater, here an easily overlooked immature male.

Four species of motmots included the dazzling Turquoise-browed...

And the retiring little Tody Motmot.

A good diversity of hummingbirds included the very local Green-breasted Mountain-gem.

As well as seeing the endemic Honduran Emerald, we studied the endemic ‘Honduran Wren’—a cryptic taxon of Rufous-naped (aka Rufous-backed) Wren that probably should be split as a full species.

The rarest bird of the trip, however, was this oddball trogon, a presumed hybrid between Collared and Gartered—and its voice was as puzzling as its appearance! Photo by participant Howard Heffler.

All in all, from Resplendent Quetzals in bromeliad-laden cloud forest...

To American Pygmy Kingfishers in quiet coastal backwaters it was a trip of great birds and great memories.

February 23:

Jake Mohlmann reports from South Texas

We had an amazing group of people traveling through the southern tip of Texas this year. This tour highlights Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties, from the ultra-colorful Altamira Orioles seen multiple places, to the just as common Olive Sparrow, regarded on this trip for its subtle beauty and affinity for dense cover. Always a challenge is differentiating the yellow-bellied kingbirds here, specifically the Tropical and Couch’s. Luckily, we had multiple days to compare the two.

Our group excited at the prospect of finding Aplomado Falcons

Altamira Oriole - Colorful resident species included Altamira Oriole

Olive Sparrow - although not as colorful, the Olive Sparrow is normally a lifer.

Couch’s Kingbird tends to prefer more wooded areas than look-alike Tropical.

We visited the vast King Ranch to search for some of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls that reside there. It didn’t take long to hear the monotonous toot of one of these birds echoing through the live oak forest. We tracked down the call to reveal one of North American’s smallest owls, and certainly one of the hardest to see in North America.

We had great views of a bold Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Texas is an area where all three regularly occurring kingfisher species can be seen in a day, sometimes even at the same location. We saw a pair of Ringed Kingfishers working the Rio Grande from shore to shore. One of them slammed down into the river and came up with a fish longer than the length of the entire bird. It perched across from us and slammed the fish into oblivion before eventually swallowing it whole. Belted Kingfishers joined us on our boat trip out of Rockport regularly perching on whatever was available. Perhaps the favorite kingfisher of all was the tiny and mighty Green. At Estero Llano Grande State Park a confiding individual flew under our feet as we stood on a bridge, perching close by for a flurry of photos.

Green Kingfisher - Green is the smallest of our Kingfishers, though most coveted.

Although bright colors tend to dominate any birding scene here, there are other earth-toned species that demand as much respect as their doughty relatives. A perfectly camouflaged Common Pauraque was difficult to spot perfectly placed amongst the fallen brown leaves. There were also Rio Grande varietals of Wild Turkey encountered, performing on the catwalk with slow strutting and tails flared.

A Common Pauraque hidden in its element

The highly sought after Rio Grande form of Wild Turkey in all its glory.

Whooping Cranes are usually a big reason people come on this trip, and this year did not disappoint. We got right next to a family group comprised of two alert adults and a brown youngster. They foraged together through the shallow estuaries searching for their favorite food blue crab. When the pond was thoroughly probed the youngster gave a call implying they should head to another foraging area. The family then ran into the sky against the waning sunlight.

An adult Whooping Crane feeds alongside its chick of the year.

 

A juvenile Whooping Crane takes flight at Aransas NWR

Texas has a lot of water and as a result birds associating with this habitat abound. American White Pelicans were found from the most remote inland ephemeral pond, to the much more fertile coastline. Feeding right along them were the staggeringly beautiful Roseate Spoonbill, at times at very close range.

American White Pelican heading down the Rio Grande.

The stunning Roseate Spoonbill seen at close range.

By far the rarest water bird we encountered was the Great White Heron, a rare pale morph of the Great Blue Heron that normally occurs in Florida and Western Caribbean. Another scene to remember was a Sora, not an uncommon bird under normal circumstances, but rare in the activity we saw it in. A recently diseased White Pelican was riddles with flies, some of which the Sora was plucking from the eye socket of the corpse.

a rare Great White Heron was a complete surprise on our boat trip

this Sora probed the eye of a diseased pelican for flies

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