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From the Home/From the Field

January 7:

Rich Hoyer completed his wonderful Christmas in Oaxaca tour recently.

It can’t have been a surprise that the Red Warbler was mentioned by the most participants as one of their favorite birds on this year’s Oaxaca at Christmastime tour – it’s always an arresting sight to see such a jewel in the pine-oak forests.

The first one we saw was up high and difficult, the second was a bit better but in the dark forest understory, the third was brilliant and gorgeous, the fourth was just as cooperative, and then we saw a fifth and realized that there might be too much of a good thing.

 

So we turned our attention instead to a Golden-browed Warbler and flock of Dwarf Jays until we were drawn by the stunning beauty of a pair of Princely Tiger Moths mating in the middle of the road.

 

Birds from the drier parts of the Oaxaca Valley included great views of the Mexican endemic Boucard’s Wren, not quite as cactus-bound as our own Cactus Wren, but certainly reminiscent of its close cousin.

 

The Covid situation in Mexico was taken very seriously, even though case numbers were quite low during our visit. As a result, the radish carving competition of Noche de Rábanos was officially canceled only a day before the event on December 23. Nevertheless, at the last minute, we heard that some were being displayed at various hotels and cafés, and we got to visit three and learn from their creators about the process and symbolism portrayed in their art.

 

Presumably another casualty of the pandemic was the non-announced closure of Yagul ruins, but we did get to enter the fascinating and more modern ruins of Mitla.

 

The studio of the master rug weaver Nelson Perez Mendoza was open for business, and we gratefully received a brief explanation of the natural fibers and dyes he uses in the yarn for his award-winning and truly inspirational weavings, some of which we then either coveted or bought.

 

Our three-day side trip to Tuxtepec was marred only by sunny weather – such beautiful conditions certainly make for comfortable birding, but they also result in a lack of flock activity at higher elevations. No matter the weather, birds at the lower elevations were as busy as ever, and the sun also created perfect soaring conditions, allowing for the addition of a rare Gray-headed Kite to the master list for this tour, which now includes 17 years of data.

December 16:

Gavin Bieber completed his 3-tour traverse of Panama with a stay in the Darien region

Our 2021 Panama Darien tour immediately followed the western trip through the Chiriqui Highlands and Bocas del Toro.  The vast and sparsely populated Darien Province in the far east of the country contains some of the most remote and wild lowland and montane wilderness remaining in Central America.  Our base for the week was the very comfortable Canopy Camp.  We spent several days exploring the camp trails and various spots along the end of the Pan-American highway, where patches of forest and more open fields revealed widespread birds such as Chestnut-headed Oropendola and the hard-to-actually-see Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant as well as more localized ones such as the impressive Barred Puffbird, Greater Ani, and the globally scarce Dusky-backed Jacamar.  Near the town of Yaviza which sits at the terminus of the Pan-American Highway we tracked down the only known pair of Bicolored Wrens on the continent and enjoyed a vocal and visual show from the always charismatic Donacobius.  The grounds around the camp were excellent for hummingbirds, and we enjoyed multiple views of species such as Long-billed Starthroat, Violet-bellied Hummingbird and the incredibly cute Rufous-crested Coquette.  A few stray non-birds crossed our path too, such as this incredibly attractive pair of Rainbow Ameivas, and a host of interesting insects like this pair of Carmine Skimmers.

On one day we took boats out into Embera territory past the end of the road which gained us access to a recently discovered Harpy Eagle nest, surely the highlight species of the trip for most.  Over the course of the week we encountered 263 species of birds including 15 species of antbirds, an impressive 13 species of herons and 35 species of everyone’s favorite bird family; the new world flycatchers!  These areas in the Darien are little explored and I am sure that the creation of a comfortable lodge here will produce a lot of new discoveries.  I very much look forward to returning next fall!

Canopy Camp Common Area

Chestnut-headed Oropendola

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant

Barred Puffbird

Greater Ani

Dusky-backed Jacamar

Bicolored Wren

Donacobius

Long-billed Starthroat

Violet-bellied Hummingbird

Rufous-crested Coquette

Rainbow Ameivas

Carmine Skimmers

Harpy Eagle

December 16:

Gavin Bieber has concluded our recent Panama: Western Highlands and Bocas del Toro tour

The 2021 WINGS trip to Western Panama wrapped up to great acclaim.  It’s surely a testament to the diversity of habitats and of birds that exist in this relatively small geographic area that over the course of eight birding days we detected 341 species between the Caribbean lowlands and Pacific-slope Highlands.  We started out in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, where the semi aquatic town of Bocas served as our access point to the idyllic Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge.  Traveling largely by boat we ventured out to other islands and the adjacent forested lowlands where we were introduced to a wealth of birds and other animals amid the picturesque archipelago and humid Caribbean foothills.  A few of the trip highlights from Bocas and the lowlands this year include the displaying pairs of Red-billed Tropicbirds at a small offshore colony, a male Three-wattled Bellbird just a few hundred yards from the lodge, and the Collared Plovers on the beach at the mouth of the Changinola River.  

The second half of the trip found us exploring the cool and heavily forested highlands around the impressive 11400-foot Baru Volcano where new birds like Resplendent Quetzal, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and a fantastic Panama-style Thanksgiving feast awaited.  Our last day was down in the pacific lowlands where we eventually caught a return flight to Panama City from the town of David, but not before finding a wealth of pacific slope birds and such local specialties as Lesson’s Motmot, Spot-crowned Euphonia and Silver-throated Tanager.  I very much look forward to returning to this dynamic and bird-rich region annually!

semi aquatic town of Bocas, Panama

travel is by boat

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

Red-billed Tropicbird

Three-wattled Bellbird

Collared Plovers on the beach at the mouth of the Changinola River

Resplendent Quetzal

White-throated Mountain-Gem

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl

Panama-style Thanksgiving feast at Los Quetzales Lodge

Lesson’s Motmot

Spot-crowned Euphonia

Silver-throated Tanager

December 14:

Gavin Bieber reports from the famed Canopy Tower of Panama

Our short fall 2021 trip to the famous Panama Canopy Tower was packed with birds and several charismatic mammal species including almost daily visits to the tower from Geoffrey’s Tamarins and a Western Lowland Olingo.

Around the tower we located well over two hundred species of birds, including gaudy and overtly tropical birds such as Black-throated Trogon, Collared Aracari Orange-chinned Parakeet and Black-cheeked Woodpecker. Pipeline Road, a signature site for lowland forest in Central America was excellent this year, with point-blank views of Ocellated Antbird and Streak-chested Antpitta.

The day trip up to the (relative) highlands of Cerro Azul produced a wonderful Blue Cotinga, plentiful butterflies such as this handsome Sara Heliconian and a surprise in the form of this Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts and uniqueness of the tower make for a truly wonderful experience.

Collared Aracari

Western Lowland Olingo

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Black-throated Trogon

Blue Cotinga

Sara Heliconian

Orange-chinned Parakeet

Ocellated Antbird

Geoffrey’s Tamarin

Streak-chested Antpitta

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

December 13:

Rich Hoyer recently finished an excellent tour to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico

The birding in the Yucatan Peninsula on this year’s tour was simply fun. Everywhere were reliable numbers of our North American breeding species – Magnolia Warblers and White-eyed Vireos dominated almost every stop, but Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Hooded Warblers, Least Flycatchers, and so many others made every stop a delight.

This Summer Tanager made it to the short list of favorites by being so cooperative.

 

Amongst all the migrants were good numbers of tropical residents, such as furtive Bright-rumped Attilas, chattering Red-crowned Ant-tanagers, primped Turquoise-browed Motmots, rambunctious Keel-billed Toucans, and this cheeky Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that arrived to mob one of many Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls we found.

One thing that makes this region special are the regional endemics, and we saw all the expected ones – Yucatan Wren, Yucatan Gnatcatcher (the recent split from White-lored), Black Catbird, and many others. Mexican Sheartails were common this year, though the amazing color of the male’s gorget was visible only if the light was just right.

We also scored all the endemic species and the most distinctive subspecies on Cozumel with not too much trouble, and the Cozumel Vireo was a popular bird for the group. After having such great views of and listening to the song of this amazingly distinctive endemic subspecies of House Wren (Troglodytes aedon beani), we were all left wondering only when, not if, it will be split.

Water birds were a big part of this year’s tour, with our newly revised itinerary giving us a full day and a second morning in the Rio Lagartos area, where we tallied eleven species of heron and egret and 24 species of shorebird. A close comparison of Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs like this is quite a treat. (photo by Rich Bayldon)

We estimated well over 1000 American Flamingos on the salt ponds, and this pair provided for a racy moment as the male came up from behind and mated with the female while she continued to act as if feeding.

There was never a dull moment, with so many other interesting critters drawing our attention, such as polydesmid millipedes, two species of army ants, and colorful butterflies, such as this Northern Mestra.

Unlike the mainland species, the smaller and endemic Cozumel Raccoon was charming in its almost polite, demure way of asking for a handout.

December 9:

Luke Seitz has reported back from a successful trip to Guyana

We just wrapped up our Guyana tour in fine fashion, with over 400 species of birds and a long list of other highlights, from mammals to food to waterfalls.

 

It’s a stunning, birdy, welcoming country, perhaps my favorite tour to guide…starting off bright, with Toco Toucan in Georgetown…

 

…and quickly transitioning to the one of the stars of the entire trip, the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Guianan Cock-of-the-rock!! This year, at least a half-dozen males provided long scope views and photo opps…

 

…and not far from the scenery peak of the tour, the ridiculous Kaieteur Falls, apparently the largest single-drop waterfall in the world (by volume).

From here, we spent several days working through mixed flocks and eking out shy forest species, somewhat more challenging but certainly rewarding. Here’s a rare Long-tailed Woodcreeper that posed beautifully near Atta Lodge…

 

…and a silent Black-faced Hawk perched along one of the forest trails, oblivious to its excited onlookers!

 

Not everything in the forest was challenging, however…the Black Curassows at Atta Lodge are getting friendlier by the week, now brazenly running INTO the dining room at times!

 

One of the top birds of the trip was this Rufous Potoo, rare and enigmatic throughout its range. This is only one of a handful of known sites in the world, and although it required wet feet, it was well worth the pain. We stood transfixed as it gently swayed back-and-forth, as if to mimic a dead leaf in the breeze…

 

From the forest, we transitioned abruptly to birding in the extensive Rupununi savannah, where birds like Sun Parakeet and Red Siskin performed brilliantly. They were very nearly outshined by this glorious lunch on one of the final days of our trip, even more proof that Guyana is a simply wonderful destination. I’m already looking forward to the next tour!

November 21:

Jon Feenstra reports from southern Ecuador

This was my first time out of the country (or Southern California) since the onset of the pandemic and only my second trip away from home, so it was excellent to get back on the road again to southern Ecuador of all places, perhaps my favorite place to bird on the planet. I was joined by 7 equally eager birders. We enjoyed a marathon 16 days of birding, 517 bird species, and all of the parks, reserves, and great lodges that were happy to be back in business.

Southern Ecuador is a trip of extremes through elevations high and low, rainforests, deserts, tropical deciduous forest, paramo, mangrove forests, wetlands, and the expected diversity of birds that such a diversity of tropical habitats bring.

Here the group walks through the paramo of Cerro de Arcos, the isolated home of the Blue-throated Hillstar, a hummingbird only first discovered by birders in 2017.

We not only got to see the Blue-throated Hillstar quite close on its favored perch, we watched it feed on its obligate chuquiragua flowers and buzz around its territory.

Though the trail was a long muddy slog, we got up into the deep forest of the Tapichalaca Reserve to see perhaps the most famous bird in southern Ecuador, the spectacular Jocotoco Antpitta. 

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan is another big, wild-looking thing of the high country. This one came in quietly and gave us a great view.

Lower down, Amazonian foothill specialties like this Foothill Stipplethroat intersected our birding travels in the lower Cordillera del Condor, an isolated tepui ridge along the Peruvian border. With the help of GPS, we found that the road actually crosses unmarked into Peru for about 500m, so we took the opportunity to stop and add some birds to our Peru list.

I was having too much fun watching things, so missed photo opportunities of some of the other highlights like Long-wattled Umbrellabirds on their lek, an Orange-throated Tanager glowing in the fog, Horned Screamers shuffling around, or the Watkin’s Antpitta nonchalantly poking around in the leaf litter. It was great to be back!

October 16:

Skye Haas reports from Cape May: 

Cape May, New Jersey is undoubtedly the capital of birding in North America, and WINGS' first visit since 2014 did not disappoint! A migration tour always makes a leader a touch nervous as unlike going to a fertile breeding area or a region where hordes of birds spend their winters, there is quite the roll of the dice to see if there will be favorable conditions for migration or not. But as it turned out, we rolled a natural 20 and our days were full of birds, mirth and pleasant weather! We tallied in an impressive 151 species of birds for the week with warblers (18 species), shorebirds (25 species) as well as great raptor flights and a handful of goodies that were not on our radar. Highlights we encountered included European Wigeon, Great Cormorant, 4 Roseate Spoonbills, Hudsonian Godwits, Avocets, Blue Grosbeaks and an afternoon that was just filled with Kestrels and Merlins winging their way southward. One day we got up early and took the Lewes ferry to Delaware where we saw our only Brown-headed Nuthatches of the trip and then experienced the shorebird bonanza of Bombay Hook NWR. Another morning we boarded a flat-bottomed boat to explore the coastal salt marshes with flocks of herons and egrets as well as saltmarsh specialties like the Diamondback Terrapin. One of the true delights of this tour is how little time we spent in the van. Most of our days we birded in a five mile radius, drifting from the Morning Flight Count to the Hawk Deck to enjoying flocks of Black Skimmers on the beach in front of our inn. Cape May is an adorable resort town and our evening meals were excellent with many participants bending towards the ample local seafood . And everywhere one went, there were groups of birders enjoying their Cape May experience like us. It felt like community, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s tour.

Cape May Warbler

Broad-winged Hawk

Great Egret

Diamondback Terrapin

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Monarch Butterflies

Cape May Lighthouse

Pine Warbler

Red-eyed Vireo

Roseatte Spoonbills

October 11:

Rich reports from the Madre de Dios region of Peru. 

The rainforest lodges of Madre de Dios were an abrupt but delightful change of pace from the first Peru tour, where we had been mostly in mountains of the neighboring department of Cusco. For one, it was warm and humid, though on two days we were under the influence of a late cold front, when the overcast skies and cooler temperatures were quite welcome.  

We walked every day, piling on the miles, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of this tour is being able to bird right outside our rooms. It was right there when we heard a ruckus from inside a dead, hollowed-out palm trunk, and we looked up to see this Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl indignantly poking its head out of the top.

 

Another treat was walking the same trails on multiple days – and discovering how different they can be from one day to the next. On our first pass by a large tree dropping red fruits to the ground, a group of Pale-winged Trumpeters approached and put on quite a show. The next time we passed there, a stunning Plum-throated Cotinga sat just under the canopy for extended views. And on a third visit we flushed a Ruddy Quail-Dove off its nest with two eggs, right next to a stunning cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) that was dropping its flowers all around the tree. 

And yet on another pass on the same trail, this female Cream-colored Woodpecker perched at eye-level very close to the trail and sat there for an extended time, seemingly unafraid of our presence.

 

We birded one of the closer trails to the lodge several times in search of its bamboo specialties, and we were surprised on one morning by a pair of very quiet Rufous-capped Nunlets low in the vegetation right off the trail. 

Then again there were some reliable birds, such as the lek of Band-tailed Manakins which showed well when we stood still near their favorite display area, and on our second stop they were even more cooperative. Or the pair of Great Jacamars that we found along the same stretch of one trail on several days. We suspected they might have had a nest nearby.

 

Two surprises at Los Amigos were a rare Brown-banded Puffbird that flew in quietly while we were scanning the canopy for a singing Western Striolated-Puffbird (which we ended up seeing on another day). Another was the scarce and very unpredictable Amazonian Parrotlet, which if found is usually just a quick-flying flock through the canopy. This year we saw pairs and multiple small flocks on five days, perched in trees and feeding right over the trails, offering great views of this bird that Don Stap wrote about in his popular book A Parrot Without a Name

The last days of birding at Tambo Blanquillo were a nice change of pace, starting with a long boat ride on the Madre de Dios river. We spent most of a morning at the famous clay lick. It was a thrill to see a flock of about a hundred Red-and-green Macaws take off in a deafening flight. They never did come down to feed on the dirt, but many other species did, including this collection of Blue-headed, Orange-cheeked, and Mealy parrots.

 

We had a delightful paddle around one of the oxbow lakes, where Pale-eyed Blackbird, dozens of Hoatzins, Greater Anis, Sungrebe, and many other species presented themselves. A favorite bird of the tour and a very lucky find was this lone Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, perched typically in the deep shade of the overhanging vegetation.

 

We also saw a fantastic variety of butterflies and other insects, frogs, and mammals, including nine species of monkey, many in abundance. Along one trail we looked up into a tree cavity only to see this sac-winged bat scramble out and perch in plain sight on the trunk.

 

The station science coordinator at Los Amigos was very generous with his time, and he showed us this White-lined Leaf Frog that had been roosting on the same leaf for a few days right by the office; here it is in the evening setting off to forage.

The tour ended with an impressive total of about 375 species of birds. And though no one took part in both tours, the total 20-day total came to about 650 species.

October 7:

Raymond reports from our Alaska - Fall Migration in Gambell tour:

Fall migration on the Bering Sea islands is unpredictable and exciting, as this tour proved yet again! Few things had changed at Gambell since our last fall visit, in 2019. Many ATVs had fallen into disrepair during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, which made for some bumpy birding, but the locals greeted us with beautiful smiles on their faces, breathtaking ivory carvings, and were as welcoming as ever. A notable difference from our last trip was the presence of sunshine, very little rain, and many vagrant birds from Asia! We encountered all expected trans-Beringean migrants, including large flocks of White Wagtails and Northern Wheatears, two Eastern Yellow Wagtails, many Bluethroats (all without blue throats), and multiple small groups of Red-throated Pipits. Arctic Warblers were surprisingly scarce with only two very brief, very poor views.

The group boarding the plane to Gambell (Howell)

Group photo

Our list of rare Asian vagrants was impressive, with Siberian Chiffchaff, and Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler, representing the most unexpected, both with fewer than 16 records for North America. The juvenile Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler (right) was not merely seen, it was seen incredibly well, with extended scope views on open gravel – very uncharacteristic of the species. Perhaps it had just completed an open-ocean crossing moments before being found and was simply exhausted (most likey), or maybe Raymond scared it into sitting-still when he leapt from his ATV to document the fleeting bird upon initial discovery. Whatever the reason for the uncharacteristic behavior it was most welcome. It’s not often that you hear, “Middendorff’s is in the scope”, or even more impressive, “Middendorff’s is still in the scope!”                                               

Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler

The list of vagrants doesn't stop there, in addition to the two megas, we encountered multiple Dusky Warblers, and three Siberian Accentors  during our routine boneyard stomps.

 

One of at least two Dusky Warblers seen on September 4th in the Far Boneyard

Siberian Accentor

Gray-tailed Tattler made us work hard this year, encountering Wandering Tattler on three occasions, before finally finding one along the west side of Troutman Lake on the day before departure. In general, shorebirds were few and far between on this tour but what views we did have were very nice. A favorite moment for many was enjoying a spectacularly plumaged Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (right) mousing its way through the grass, mere feet from the group, for upwards of 10 minutes.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Seawatch seemed slow overall compared to previous years, perhaps due to the slightly later tour dates, or maybe because we had fewer days of north winds. Despite lower species diversity than expected we still witnessed impressive migratory activity with Short-tailed Shearwaters gunning past the point in the thousands, beginning their journeys back to nesting grounds around Tasmania. Yellow-billed Loons were only seen twice, and not for long. Steller’s and King Eiders flew by but were always distant. We made up for these views with close encounters of King, Common, and Spectacled eiders around Safety Lagoon in Nome. Alcids of all shapes and sizes were seen most days at seawatch, with large groups of Horned and Tufted puffins barreling past most mornings. Least, Crested, and Parakeet auklets were seen mostly near their nesting cliffs, some of which were still attending burrows, but most of which were forming small, mixed species rafts offshore.

A small, and lucky, group of birders witnessed a male Snowy Owl fly right over the lodge late one evening while preparing for an evening of seawatch and sewage. Despite our attempts to track it down the runway, with ATVs at full speed, we were unable to refind it. Snowies are a rare sighting this time of year at Gambell, with encounters during only 4 of the last 14 fall trips.

Our group’s good fortune extended well beyond avian sightings as one morning, after a good hard boneyard stomp, we noticed a group of Rough-legged Hawks diving aggressively on something high on the ridgeline of Sivuqaq Mountain. They were persistent, and so were we, hoping to catch a glimpse of their aggravator. Before long an Arctic Fox appeared, running in short bursts along the ridge and then ducking to avoid the talons from above.

Arctic Fox

To top it all off, on the clearest night of our tour, all participants (and WINGS cooks, Debbie and Larry) were able to watch the aurora borealis dance about above the village of Gambell, while Steve and Raymond slept soundly in the annex, earplugs buried deep in their skulls, completely unaware of the atmospheric lightshow going on outside. It’s fine, we’re not jealous at all.

Aurora Borealis above Gambell

Ironically the clear skies that allowed for aurora viewing signaled departure for many of the migratory songbirds that we’d enjoyed during our stay and the next morning was very slow – everything comes with a price, but this was a welcome trade.

Congratulations go out to Gary Rankin for reaching an impressive milestone of 800 species for his ABA list while on this tour, and to Len and Cheryl as the winners of the 2nd annual “What Do You Call Your Clunker: ATV Naming Contest” who clunked into 1st place with their winning name of Middendorf’s Red-backed Aviraptor (Aviraptorix metallica gambelii, obviously).

Birders from the perspective of the Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler

It was an absolute blast of a trip and I’m already looking forward to what next year holds. Hope to see you there!

 “Quu-qu” the juvenile Emperor Goose (pronounced “Coco” with a throaty quality) out for a stroll with its St Lawrence Yupik family. This bird was taken from a nest over the summer and is being raised as a pet. We hope to see it next year as an adult!

Winter is coming, as evidenced by this Arctic Ground Squirrel prepping its food stores. (Howell)

Frontal view of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in the Ooynik Lagoons south of Troutman Lake.

Juvenile dark morph Pomarine Jaeger along the Ooynik Lagoon shoreline.

Siberian Chiffchaff in the far boneyard, can’t you tell? (Howell)

Lining up for a bit of “fun” at the Circular Boneyard, everyone’s favorite mid-morning activity… not! (Howell)

Your intrepid leaders, Steve Howell and Raymond VanBuskirk (Kay Hawklee)

Driving past the dump (Howell)

Not so white White Wagtail (Howell)

Not so yellow Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Howell)

Debbie and Larry Brooks, our fabulous chef and her bubble master. (Kay Hawklee)

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