Madagascar Part 4, Birds of Andasibe- November 26 to December 1

We flew from Tulear to Tana on November 26.  There our party was divided for the remainder of the trip because of the need for smaller, four-wheel drive vehicles in the Andasibe/Mantadia area.  It took nearly 2 hours to get out of Tana because of the heavy traffic. The road was narrow and full of pot-holes.   It was slow-going most of the time and perilously fast the rest of the time, with heavy truck traffic both ways all the time.  We arrived at the Andasibe Hotel long after dark; we would spend the next 4 nights there. 

Within the Andasibe area are Andasibe National Park, Mantadia National Park and smaller preserves.  We spent most of our time near Andasibe, but on the 3rd day we drove the road to Mantadia.  We certainly needed the 4-wheel drives for that trip, which was not far, but very rough and wet. 

Over the course of several days we enjoyed 3 sightings of the odd Madagascar (Crested) Ibis:

madagascar-ibis

And, finally, a stunning closeup view of a Cuckoo-roller, one of the regional endemics of Madagascar previously seen in good numbers, but not as close as this one.

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfishers were found at several locations.

madagascar-pygmy-kingfisher

Our Vanga sightings improved with first sightings of Nuthatch Vangas, more Chapert’s Vangas  and a better look at a Blue Vanga.

This White-headed Vanga stayed high in the trees.

white-headed-vanga

A White-throated Oxylabes (of the Malagasy Warbler family) on the nest held still for our photographers. 

white-throated-oxylabes

Nelicourvi Weavers showed up every day.

nelicourvi-weaver

Purple Rollers were foraging above a small pond.

purple-roller

One late afternoon we were able to see a Collared Nightjar.

collared-nightjar

I used to focus on species in my birding outings, of which there are over 10,000 world-wide.  In the past several years, however, I have been trying to see as many of the bird families as possible.  Currently there are 248 families, up from about 200 a few years ago.  Genetic analysis has resulted in this remarkable increase.   I started thinking about going to Madagascar a year or so ago because it would be possible to add 7 new bird families to my then life-time total of 216: Mesites (endemic to Madagascar), Flufftails (widespread in Africa), Crab Plovers (widespread in the Africa-Asia coastal areas), Cuckoo Rollers (endemic in the Madagascar region), Ground Rollers (endemic to Madgascar), Asities (endemic to Madagascar) and Malagasy Warblers (endemic to Madagascar).  I was able to see 6 of the 7, but although our guide had fleeting glimpses of a couple of Asities, I did not.  And so I was able to add 6 families to my count to bring to 222 the number of families of birds that I have seen.  As for species, I added 83 new species to my world list, to bring the total to 3,796.  Couas are members of the world-wide Cuckoo family, and Vangas have some newly assigned family members in other parts of the world, but both the Couas and the Vangas on Madagascar are particularly colorful and interesting.   

My final Madagascar installment (Part 5) will feature Lemurs, Chameleons and other creatures unique to Madagascar.

Madagascar – Part 3 – November 23, 24 and 25

On November 23 we took the long drive from Tulear to Zombitze and Isalo.

These destinations were included in our itinerary primarily for the opportunity to see Ring-tailed Lemurs at Isalo.  We were not disappointed.

We stopped for a roadside brunch along the way.  The stop was productive of plenty of birds winging their way through the open valley and brushland bordering the road.  Included were Madagascar Sandgrouse, Hammerkops, and Grey-headed Lovebirds.  On to Zombitse where Cuckoo-rollers (my 5th new family of the trip) were numerous and vocal as they flew calling over the forest. [A later close-up view with picture came at Andasibe, for a later installment]. At Zombitze we found Giant Couas

giant-coua

We were lucky at Zombitse to get good close-up views of a pair of rare and range-restricted Appert’s Tetrakas (of the endemic Malagasy Warbler Family).

Zombitse produced a surprising daytime view of our second Sportive Lemur, the Zombitse Sportive Lemur

sportif-lemur

And our first encounter with a group of Verreaux’s Sifakas.

verreaux-sifakas

Both Greater and Lesser Vasas (parrots) were present, as were Archbold’s and Common Newtonias (Vanga Family), and Blue Vangas.  A Hook-billed Vanga had a nest nearby.

hook-billed-vanga hook-billed-vanga-nest

Another Zombitse find was this Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher, one of several seen at various stops on the tour.  

madagascar-flycatcher

From Zombitse it was a short drive to our very impressive Hotel Relais de la Reine at Isalo.  

hotel-relais

From the Hotel we took an evening walk, which Barbara and I cut short as the rest of the group walked on, so I could rest.  We climbed up some nearby rocks overlooking a grassy bowl.  There we sat on the ridge surrounding the bowl for a long time as the sun set and a pair of Helmeted Guineas furtively lurked through the valley of tall grasses.

isalo-at-sunset

The 24th found us at Isalo National Park where we hoped to find Ring-tailed Lemurs.  And we did, as they gamboled about in the trees by the campground for a long time.

ring-tailed-lemur-1 ring-tailed-lemur-2

A long walk further into the park produced nothing of interest and we returned to the campground where we were fortunate to see again the acrobatics of the Ring-tailed Lemurs as they prepared to depart from the campground area.   I also saw the Park’s lone surviving Verreaux’s Sifaka as she danced her magical side-step down the path to join the retiring Ring-tailed Lemurs.  Her family was wiped out a few years ago in an out-of-control burn of nearby pasture lands that spread to the forest.

Here we also saw this Madagascar Tree Boa.

madagascar-tree-boa

None of the snakes on Madagascar are poisonous.  Others seen on the trip were Cat-eyed, Speckled Hognose, Striped Garter and Mahafaly Sand Snakes.

On the 25th we returned to Tulear, with the drive occupying most of the day.  Along the way we saw panning for jewels in the muddy rivers, (recent discoveries of various precious and other gemstones has led to a “gem rush” in various areas in Madagascar).

We saw clothes being washed in muddy rivers and dried on the banks.

washing-clothes

We

saw numerous burial sites.

burial-sites

We stopped at a small Mahafaly Village where we were welcomed.

village-people

and invited into a resident’s typical, modest, one-room, dirt-floored home.

village-home

Cooking of the evening meals on outdoor charcoal pits was in process. 

village-cooking

Water is imported from miles away with trucks coming through the villages on a weekly basis. 

water

On returning to Tulear, we visited the  market

market

and returned to the Hotel Moringa for a restful night before our flight back to Tana, followed by a long, slow, dangerous drive from Tana to Andasibe where we would spend the rest of our tour in and around the Andasibe and  Mandatia National Parks and the Perinet Preserve.

Stay tuned for Part 4, the Birds and Lemurs of the Andisibe area.

Madagascar —– Part 2 — November 20, 21 and 22

The spiny forest produced the top bird of the day, (November 20), maybe of the trip, a Subdesert Mesite, one of the species comprising my 3rd new family recorded in Madagascar.

subdesert-mesite

 

This Running Coua was another highlight of the Spiny Forest.

running-coua

 

A shallow water area, the Ifaty wetlands, held numbers of plovers, sandpipers, herons and egrets.  Efforts to find the Endemic Humblot’s Heron were unsuccessful.  Madagascar Bee-eaters were common.

madagascar-bee-eater

 

Here we also saw the endemic Madagascar Plover.

madagascar-plover

 

Cisticolas, including Jerys were regular during the day.

On November 21 we drove by another wetland on our way to the La Table dry bush area.

Verreaux’s Couas showed well at La Table.

verreauxs-coua

 

La Table also produced stunning views of a pair of Red-shouldered Vangas, a bird found only in a small area of southwest Madagascar.

red-shouldered-vanga

[Side note:  Our guide told us that a Red-shouldered Vanga was the last bird seen by Phoebe Snetzinger.  In about 1980 at the age of 50, Phoebe, a resident of the Illinois/St. Louis area, was diagnosed with terminal skin cancer.  She decided then to make use of her remaining days by becoming a serious birder.  Her cancer went into remission several times in the next 20 years, and in the meantime she became the top birder in the (mostly male birders) world, documenting her sightings of over 8,000 of the then recognized 8,500 species.   In 1999, twenty years almost to the day prior to our visit to La Table, Phoebe was killed there when the van in which she was riding overturned soon after finding the Red-shouldered Vanga.]

 

At La Table we also saw our first of a number of Crested Drongos.

crested-drongo

 

We made a late afternoon stop at the Botanical Garden

There we found a pair of cooperative Red (Green)-capped Couas.

red-green-capped-coua

 

Also at the Botanical Garden was an apparently nesting Madagascar Nightjar.

madagascar-nightjar

 

On the 22nd we made the boat trip to Nosy Ve, a small island off the southwest coast of Madagascar, in the hope of finding Crab Plovers.  Crab Plovers are not restricted to Madagascar, but in my prior travels I had never seen any. This was to be my best chance of adding this single species family to my life list.    Boarding the boat required first an ox cart ride from shore to boat.

ox-cart-ride

 

The day was perfect for an excursion into the Mozambique Channel, with light clouds, light winds and moderate temperatures.  We were extremely fortunate to find 17 Crab Plovers (my 4th new target family in Madagascar) at the end of our trip, on the sand spit called Nosy Ve.  Nosy Ve is not to be confused with Nosy Be at the far more popular destination for beach lovers on the northwest corner of Madagascar.  Here are a couple of the Crab Plovers, sometimes found on Nosy Ve

crab-plovers

 

Nosy Ve also hosts large numbers of Red-tailed Tropic Birds raising their chicks, and here is one of them.

red-tailed-tropic-bird-chick

 

The return boat trip took us past spectacular cliffs where we finally spotted a rare Humblot’s Heron, silhouetted on a cliff by the sea.

On then to Anakao for lunch and the regular Littoral Rock Thrush.  Near the café we were lucky to find at close range a pair of cute little Gray-Brown Mouse Lemurs in full daylight.

gray-brown-mouse-lemur-day

 

Part 3 of my Madagascar blog will cover November 23, 24 and 25, including the long drives from Tulear to Zombitse and back, the wonderful Ring-tailed Lemur experience at Isalo National Park, and an unexpected visit to a small Mahafaly village along the way back to Tulear.

 

Madagascar — Part 1 — November 18-19, 2019

Madagascar

4th largest island, after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo

250 miles east of southern Africa, across the Mozambique Channel

Broke away from Gondwana 150,000,000 years ago

First humans arrived 2000 years ago. Closer to Africa, nevertheless the first arrivals        were Indonesian

Population about 25,000,000, 18 tribes, mixes of Indonesian and African

“Tribe” is an accepted term, and inter-tribal violence continues in rural areas

Over 50% cannot read or write

Life expectancy is about 60

Average daily income:  $2.00

Gained independence from France in 1960, after 65 years of French control

Over 50% are ancestor worshipers; 20% Protestant, 20% Catholic, 7% Muslim

Agriculture (cattle, rice, etc.) and fishing dominate; mining coming on

Politics is volatile, but so far elections have been mostly respected.

Governmental corruption is spoken of as a way of life.  We experienced none.

 

Barbara and I and daughter, Nora and son-in-law, Dave, hired Tropical Birding to guide us on a tour of Madagascar between November 17 and December 2, 2019.  Two of the principals of Tropical Birding, Ken Behrens and Keith Barnes authored a book entitled “Wildlife of Madagascar”, published in 2016.  It proved to be a valuable resource.  The book covers many of Madagascar’s mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, invertebrates and distinctive plants, focusing on those that visitors are most likely to encounter.

The mammals include Lemurs, (we saw 13 species) Carnivores, (none seen) Bats, (1 species seen) Tenrecs, (1 species seen) Rodents (1 species seen) and Marine Mammals (none seen)

The following is quoted from the Behrens and Barnes “Wildlife of Madagascar”:

“A brief introduction to Madagascar.  Madagascar is so different from the rest of the world that it is sometimes called ‘The Eighth Continent’.  Not only does it have the high level of endemism (species not found elsewhere) that is typical of an island, but it also boasts remarkable diversity, which for some groups approaches that more typical of a whole continent.  Madagascar is the land of lemurs, a radiation of our own primate order that evolved into exhilarating diversity on this island.  These endearing creatures are the ambassadors for Malagasy nature; many people who have no idea where this island is located immediately recognize the Ring-tailed Lemur.  Madagascar is also a land of fabulous birds, ancient reptile lineages, and six of the world’s nine species of baobabs.  All naturalists find Madagascar fascinating as a treasure-trove of biodiversity and a ‘laboratory of evolution’, much like the Galapagos but on a grander scale.  And for travelling naturalists, Madagascar is a ‘must-visit’ place.  Although Madagascar has long been known for birds and mammals, its reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants are just as unique.”

We arrived in Antananarivo, (“Tana”) Madagascar on Air France from Paris at 11:35 p.m. on November 17, 2019.  (We had traveled from Iowa to Paris the day before and stayed overnight near the Charles De Gaulle airport.)  We were joined at the Tana airport by our Tropical Birding guide, Emma, and a driver.  It was very late but after a short, bumpy and dark drive, we were received at our Hotel, Au Bois Vert, and comfortably accommodated for what remained of the night.

November 18:  After a late breakfast we birded around the pleasant garden and grounds of the Hotel Bois Vert.  The Red Fodies were plentiful, along with 8 other common Madagascar city dwelling birds, most endemic to Madagascar.

red-fody

 

The find of the morning, however, was a handsome specimen of Oustalet’s Chameleon, just a few feet from our front doors.

oustalets-chameleon

 

The afternoon was occupied by a short trip to Lake Alarobia in the heart of Tana’s industrial area.  This Lake is home to the endemic and threatened Meller’s Duck (2 shown below with a White-faced Whistling Duck).

mellers-duck

 

A Madagascar Pond Heron with its bright blue bill was displaying across the water.

madagascar-pond-heron

 

This Malagasy Kingfisher was lovely in its dark blue coat.  (photo by Dave)

malagasy-kingfisher

 

Our second night at Bois Vert included a delicious dinner and a restful sleep (except for the music emanating late into the morning from a nearby Saturday night revelry) after which we flew to Tulear in southwest Madagascar, for a few days of birding and lemuring in or near the Spiny Forest.

Here with the expert help of Fosa and his crew, we encountered my first species of a new bird family in Madagascar, a Long-tailed Ground-Roller.

long-tailed-ground-roller

 

Other notable finds were Madagascar Turtle-Doves, Namaqua Doves, Madagascar Coucals, Madagascar Cuckoo, Madagascar Nightjar, some shorebirds, Madagascar Sparrowhawk, Madagascar Hoopoe, and my second new family member (from the Malagasy Warbler Family), a Thamnornis.  Also, Madagascar Bulbuls, Magpie-Robins, and Wagtails.  The colonial nesting Sakalava Weavers were actively engaged in nesting at the entrance to Fosa’s private reserve.

sakalava-weavers

 

And our first Vanga, this Chabert Vanga at the top of an Octopus Tree.

chabert-vanga

 

On our night walk, here we also found our first lemurs:  a Gray-brown Mouse Lemur from the numerous Mouse Lemur Family:

gray-brown-mouse-lemur

 

One of the highlights of our night walk was this cute, but prickly, Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec:

lesser-hedgehog-tenrec

 

We also found this Torotoroka Scops-Owl.

torotoroka-scops-owl

 

No report of a visit to the Spiny Forest would be complete without mention and pictures of the famous Baobab Trees and Octopus Trees.

img_20191119_175009

 

The town of Tulear  was an attraction in and of itself, partly because of the numerous rickshaws crowding the already pedestrian crowded streets, and the local folks who use them for transportation when walking becomes too tiring.  Fortunately, the terrain of the city is very flat.  The rickshaws vastly outnumbered other modes of transportation and we were told that many of the young men operators were from the southernmost area of Madagascar and that they come to Tulear in the tourist season to make a little money before returning to their homes.  (photo by Dave)

rickshaws

 

Part 2 of my Blog will report more of our tour of Ifaty, as well as La Table and our boat trip to Nosy Ve (November 20, 21 and 22).

 

Eastern Brazil’s Atlantic Forest Birding and Rio de Janeiro – September 2019

I have been on a mission to see at least one species (currently 10,721 species are listed in Clements Birds of the World) in each of the bird families (currently 248 families listed in Clements).  I am at 87.5% (217) of the families.  A few months ago I went to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where I added 6 families.  After that trip I had 3 unseen families that can be found in the western hemisphere: they are (1) Sharpbill, the (then) only species in the family Oxyruncidae, best found in eastern Brazil; (2) Sapayoa, the only species in the family Sapayoadae,  disjunctly found in various central and northern South American jungle areas;  and (3) Cuban Warblers (with 2 species) in the Teretristidae family, found only in Cuba.

About a year ago Adam and I went to Ecuador, where one of my main targets was the Sapayoa (# 2 above).  Unfortunately, terrorist activities along the Columbia border made it too dangerous to enter the area where the Sapayoa could be found, so it was eliminated from our itinerary.

Focusing my search now on the Sharpbill, from September 16 through 18 of this year we went to the eastern rain forest of Brazil.  After arrangements were in place, but before we went, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published its annual update of the Clements List of Birds of the World, and the Sharpbill suddenly acquired 5 siblings, all transferred from the Flycatcher (Tyrannidae) family.  Three of those flycatchers I have seen.   DNA analysis showed that they are more closely related to the Sharpbill.  And so, in blissful ignorance, I had Sharpbill added to my family list.   But, arrangements were in place and we wanted to see eastern Brazil and Rio, so we went anyway.

We arrived in Rio on the morning of the 16th where we were met by the Serra Dos Tucanos Birding Tours driver and transported to Itororo Lodge.  Along the way we picked up Andy Foster, the sole proprietor of Serra dos Tucanos, and the bird guide I had selected for the trip.  Andy, in addition to conducting birding tours throughout Brazil, coordinates the birding for folks who stay at the Itororo Lodge, which is located a few miles outside Nova Friburgo in the Serra do Mar Mountains.

Neither Adam nor I have good photographic equipment or skills, but Andy does, and so I made a deal with him that he should feel free to indulge his passion for wildlife photography and take as many pictures as he wished on our outings, if he would allow me to use some of them in this blog.  Below are most of the pictures he selected from the many more that he took.

Although booked as a 2-day tour, it turned into more, including the remainder of the day of arrival and the morning of the day of departure.  We saw about 140 species, of which 68  were new on my life list.

Hummingbirds were plentiful, with 9 species represented.  We saw 6 endemics (Scale-throated Hermits, Sombre Hummingbirds, Black Jacobins, Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, White-throated Hummingbirds and Brazilian Rubies) most of them in large numbers at the feeders around the Lodge.  Other Hummingbirds seen on the trip were Planalto Hermits, White-vented Violet-ear and Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds. Here are two of the endemics:

Violet-capped Woodnymph

violet-capped-woodnymph-a

 

White-throated Hummingbird

white-throated-hummingbird-a

 

Tanager species outnumbered the Hummingbirds, with 15 species.  Among the endemic species well seen at the Lodge were Ruby-crowned, Azure Shouldered, Golden-chevroned, Brassy-breasted, and Gilt-edged Tanagers.

Brassy-breasted Tanager

brassy-breasted-tanager-a

 

Golden-chevroned Tanager

golden-chevroned-tanager-a

 

We also saw Magpie, Chestnut-headed, Black-goggled, Sayaca, Fawn-breasted, Green-headed, Burnished-buff, and Rufous-headed Tanagers, and additional Tanager species,  Blue Dacnis and Green Honecreepers.

Four Parrot species made appearances:  Blue-winged Macaws, White-eyed Parakeets, Maroon-bellied Parakeets and Plain Parakeets.  Bare-throated Bellbirds frustrated Adam with their frequent calls, and infrequent sightings, until, finally, one showed well.

Bare-throated Bellbird

bare-throated-bellbird-a

 

The lovely little Manakins (Blue, Pin-tailed and White-bearded) were a delight, venturing very close as we quietly walked the forest trails.

Blue Manakin

blue-manakin-1-a

 

Pin-tailed Manakin

pin-tailed-manakin-a

 

The Sharpbill was a challenge to see, but with the Andy’s skill and Adam’s sharp eyes, we were finally able to find one perched in view long enough for a good scope view, and a picture.  Mission accomplished.

Sharpbill

sharpbil-al

 

The second priority for me was to see at least one of the two eastern Brazil Gnateaters.  We were fortunate to find both, Rufous and Black-cheeked.

Black-cheeked Gnateater

black-cheeked-gnateater-a

 

The Ovenbird family provided a great number of species, at least 20.  Less colorful (brown is prominent) than the Tanagers and some others, they proved a challenge to my spotting skills in the typically forested domain they inhabit.  Here are a couple of the typical family members from the forest:

Streaked Xenops

streaked-xenops-a

 

White-collared Foliage Gleaner

white-collared-foliage-gleaner-a

 

On day 2 we explored more open country with agriculture operations, often cattle ranching, in the valleys.  There we found a couple more of the Ovenbird family, Firewood Gatherers, (I just like the name), and Band-tailed Horneros, pictured below.

Band-tailed Hornero

wing-banded-hornero-a

 

The Flycatcher family was strongly represented, with over 20 species identified, some in the forest and some in the open habitat of Day 2.  Most of the Flycatcher species were not new to me, but here is one that was:

Streamer-tailed Tyrant

streamer-tailed-tyrant-a

 

Here are several more pictures of a few of the birds we saw:

 

White-breasted Antshrike

white-bearded-antshrike-a

 

Surucura Trogon

surucua-trogon-a

 

Gray-eyed Greenlet

gray-eyed-greenlet-a

 

Savannah Hawk

savanna-hawk-2-a

 

Spot-billed Toucanet

spot-billed-toucanet-a

 

Itororo Lodge, a couple of hours drive north of Rio, offers cool, mountain weather, comfortable lodging, privacy, colorful birds galore both for viewing and for photographing, intimacy (12 guest maximum), good food and beverage service and gracious hosts (Reiner and Bettina).  Their father, one of the leading Orchid scientists of Brazil, conceived the lodge and its surroundings to grow and study Orchids on site.  To top it off, the Lodge partners with able and convivial professional bird guide Andy Foster (dba Serra dos Tucanos Birding Tours) who offers private bird guide services coordinated with the Lodge.  For birders, the combination is hard to beat.  For others, it is also hard to find such a quiet and comfortable lodge in natural surroundings.  Our 3 day stay (September 16-18) was great and we highly recommend both Itororo and Serra dos Tucanos.

Prior to the trip Andy had recommended we engage Eugenio Souza as our guide for a couple of days of sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro.  Eugenio was otherwise engaged on a tour out of the city, but he arranged to have Paulo Giffoni substitute for him.  Paulo met us at our Hotel Atlantis Copacabana at 7:30 a.m. on the 20th, the morning after our return to Rio.  We quickly embarked on a remarkable tour, beginning with a tram ride up to a close encounter with the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, and a view from there to Sugarloaf Mountain.

img_6855a

 

A visit to the Santa Theresa area concluded with a walk down the 215 steps of the Escadoria Selaron.

img_6883a

 

Jorge Selaron was a nonconformist artist whose world-wide tile collection decorates the (for us) descent. Many of the tiles were painted by Selaron, all depicting the same pregnant African woman, a choice never explained by Selaron.  Tiles for the stairs were donated from over 60 countries around the world.  Selaron, born in 1947, was found dead on the steps about 20 years ago, again with no explanation.

The Cathedral of Saint Sebastian looks drab from the outside, like a huge copy of the Mayan ruins at Chichinitza,

img_6892a

 

but space, beauty, grand heights and glass grace the interior.

img_6894a

 

Mass was in process at the time of our tour, with extremely loud music and not many worshipers.  [The little wooden confessional seemed de minimus (barely room for 2) and out of place].

More impressive, at least for me, was the Benedictine church on Montserrat, completed in 1641, with its Baroque interior.

Paulo’s expressed appreciation of the Gregorian Chant by the monks of the monastery, customary on Sunday mornings, made me wish that I could have heard it.  Gregorian Chant is one of the music genres to which I have a sentimental attachment, dating from my college choir days at the Jesuit church at Creighton University in Omaha.

We visited the Sambadrome, a 570 meter long parade area completed in 1983 to accommodate the largest Carnival celebration in the world, repeated each year before lent.  Not much was going on, but there were a few folks with costumes, presumably typical of the Carnival, and offering a photographic opportunity, which we failed to realize.  They claim over 2,000,000 people come for Carnival, which lasts a week.  Paulo’s line:  People come to Sao Paulo for business; they come to Rio for fun.

The second day dawned wet and cloudy, foreclosing our planned visit to the obscured Sugarloaf.  We improvised with drives through the city, along the beaches, in the parks, around (not in) the favelas (mountain-side neighborhoods, each of up to 100,000 people living in self-constructed, densely packed and now stacked up to 5 floors to accommodate the multiple generations, on unowned land).  Some favelas are controlled by drug lords; and some by militia, who thrive on protection (from drug lords) money extorted from residents.

We enjoyed a great Brazilian barbecue of a very large hunk of beef at Paulo’s favorite neighborhood café and then toured the Botanical gardens.  I was worn out and soaked in sweat by the time we finished the garden tour, and ready to get to the airport for our late flight home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ver Meer Woods – Pella, Iowa – May 6, 2019

On May 6, 2019 my son-in-law and I assisted a member of the Ver Meer family in an inventory of the species at Ver Meer Woods, on the banks of the South Skunk River near Pella, Iowa.  Here is a list of the birds we saw that morning.

First and most spectacular were the nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons in the great old Sycamores on the property.  We saw about 100 nests and even more Herons, and in many of the nests could be heard young chirping.  Hatched eggshells littered the ground.  This may be the largest Great Blue Heron rookery in the State of Iowa.  What a sight and sound it was.  And what a Natural Treasure it is!!

vermeer-tree-blog

 

Other species seen at the Woodland during the morning were:  Turkey Vultures, Crows, Red-tailed Hawk, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Turkeys, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatchers, Barred Owl (heard only), Least Flycatchers, Empidonax species, Wood Thrushes, Swainson’s Thrushes, Veery, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Mourning Doves, House Wrens, Yellow-throated Vireos (heard only), Blue-headed Vireo, Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, Catbirds, Common Grackles, Bluejays, White-breasted Nuthatches, Baltimore Orioles, Robins, Eastern Towhees, Red Headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpecker (heard only), Goldfinches, White-throated Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and the following bonanza of 7 Warbler species:  Redstarts, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbirds, Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black and White Warblers, and the bird of the day, a beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler.  Total Species at the Woodlands: 45

Others seen near the Woods were Pheasants (at least 5), Great Tailed Grackles (3), Meadowlark species, Barn Swallows, and Red-winged Blackbirds, bringing the number at or near the Woods to 50 species.  The Ver Meer Family deserves great credit for placing this unique place under a conservation easement to assure the preservation of its treasures far into the future.

Other sightings of special interest were a lovely Coyote, a very large Woodchuck, a Garter Snake and Spring flowers covering the forest floor in profusion:  among others,  Spring Beauty, Rue Anemone, Violets, Buttercups, Jack-in-the Pulpit, with a few Jacks present in their pulpits, May Apples (but no apples yet), Wild Ginger, and Dutchman’s Britches (of course), but not in flower.

Dominican Republic Birding, with a stop in Puerto Rico — March, 2019

From March 2 through March 9, 2019 I participated in the Wings Birding Tour of The Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern half of the Greater Antilles island of Hispaniola, and Haiti occupies the western half of Hispaniola.  The Dominican Republic achieved independence from Haiti in 1844.  Each country has about 10,000,000 inhabitants.  At the end of the Dominican Republic tour, I flew the short distance east to Puerto Rico for a couple more days of birding.

The tour leader in the Dominican Republic was Evan Obercian (from Maine) and the local guide was Miguel Landestoy.  I was one of 8 participants.  The others were 2 women from Australia, and 5 men, respectively from Ontario, Oregon, California, Utah and Kansas.  Our guides were excellent.  In the Dominican Republic they dealt cooly with bad roads, unreliable suppliers of vehicles, and a breakdown of one of our 4-wheel drive vehicles in a remote mountain preserve.   But we did not miss a beat notwithstanding our temporary setbacks.  In Puerto Rico my guide, Julio Salgado, introduced me and his one other customer, John, to fish tacos for more of which I want to go back. The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria was not terribly apparent, but Julio and his family went without electricity for 7 months, ultimately buying a generator to end the nightmare.  One practical result for me was that the loss of many, perhaps most, of the rare Puerto Rican Parrots has resulted in closing the preserves where they could formerly be seen.  I hope they can recover.

In the past couple of years my main objective in birding has been to see at least one species of as many of the 250 bird families as is practical for me.  Prior to the Dominican Republic trip I had seen at least one species in 212 of the 250 families.  My goal was to add 5 families in the Dominican Republic, which I did.  Three of those families exist only on Hispaniola: Palmchats, Hispaniolan Tanagers, and Chat-Tanagers; the other 2 families, found there and elsewhere in the Caribbean, are the Todies and Spindalises.

After leaving The Dominican Republic I birded in Puerto Rico with Julio and there I found my 6th new family for the trip, Puerto Rican Tanager, as well as another Spindalis (Puerto Rican Spindalis), and another Tody (Puerto Rican Tody).    Todies are beautifully colored, tiny birds, found only in the Caribbean area, with 2 species in The Dominican Republic where I saw several of each of its 2 species, and added a third in Puerto Rico.

The Palmchat is the only species in its family, quite plain, and found only on Hispaniola, where they are numerous and easily viewed.

Palmchats and Todies have been families for years.  The other 4 families I sought were recently created, by splitting them, primarily out of the large Tanager family, and assigning them, based on newly available DNA analysis, to much smaller family groups:  (1) Spindalis with 4 species in the Caribbean, 1 of them being on Hispaniola and 1 in Puerto Rico (both of which I saw); (2) Hispaniolan Tanagers with 4 species (2 from the Tanager family and 2 from the Warbler family), all found only on Hispaniola,  with 1 mostly in Haiti, which I did not see ; (3) Chat-Tanagers with 2 species only on Hispaniola (I saw the Western species only); and (4) Puerto Rican Tanager, 1 specie, found only in Puerto Rico.  The net result of my birding in The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico was the addition of 6 families to my life list, increasing the total from 212 to 218.  Only Madagascar holds more potential new families for me (7), so this was an unmitigated success.  Madagascar lies ahead.

At the species level I was able to add 44 new species in The Dominican Republic and 16 in Puerto Rico, to bring my World Life List to 3,704 species.  Only about 7,000 more to go.  But at the family level, I may get to the 90% level if all goes well in Madagascar.

I apologize for the absence of pictures with this blog.  My faithful photographer, Barbara, did not accompany me on this trip, and the leaders in both areas were not photographers, so you have to go to the internet to see any of the birds mentioned.

Brazil’s Cristalino Jungle Lodge Birding – 2018

In 2015 Barbara and I went to Brazil to visit old friends in Brasilia followed by a Field Guides sponsored birding trip to Garden of the Amazon north of Cuiaba, and to the Pantanal, south of Cuiaba, both in the state of Mato Grosso.  My report on that trip can be found in this Blog, in 2 segments, published in September and October, 2015.

In August, 2018 I went back to Brazil for a shorter birding outing with Rockjumper Bird Tours at the famous Cristalino Lodge, in the southern part of the Amazon Rain Forest, in and very close to the northern border of the state of Mato Grosso.  My primary target bird for this trip was the Dark-winged Trumpeter, one of three species in the Trumpeter (Psophiadae) family, a family I had never seen and which can be found only in the Amazonia area of South America.

At Cristalino I joined a group of 6 other birders who had participated in 2 earlier segments of this Rockjumper trip, one to the Pantanal and one to Iguaszu Falls.  They welcomed me warmly to their group and the week with them and with our Rockjumper leader, Rob Williams, could not have been more enjoyable. [Side note:  the bartender at Cristalino makes a good Tanqueray and Tonic].

Cristalino Lodge is located on the banks of the dark water, Cristalino River.  I was surprised at the paucity of bothersome insects, such as mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, flies, etc.  I had come prepared with malaria pills, treated long shirts and pants, and plenty of insecticide, but I am pretty sure none of it would have been necessary, at least at this time of year, just before the wet season sets in.  I was told that mosquitoes, in particular, do not habituate well to dark water rivers because of the tannins contained in them.  True or not, their absence was a welcome surprise.  Also surprising was the nonchalance of the swimmers (most of the tour participants) who cooled off in the river every day.  I did not, maybe because I could not quite get past the thought of the possibility that the Caiman (siblings to the alligators, but just a cousin to the crocodiles) that we had seen along the river bank not far away, might wander into the swimming area.

The Lodge is very nice, the accommodations spacious and clean, the fans keep them comfortably cool, and the food, served buffet style at the central lodge, was exceptional.  A crew of hired guides works for the Lodge and I was pleased at the efforts Rob made to connect me with one of them for one day of dedicated, though unsuccessful, search for the Trumpeter, while the others took a trip down river on the boat.  In the category of small world, my lodge supplied guide is a native of Burlington, Iowa.

At Cristalino one can, and we did, walk the jungle trails, climb to the tops of canopy towers, hike to a secret “garden” and a rocky outcrop, sit quietly by a hide as the day darkened, and, my favorite, sit back in a comfortable boat for a birding trip on the dark water river.

It was in the evening while sitting quietly by a hide as birds came to bathe in the tiny water hole, that this Giant Anteater walked close to us, apparently oblivious of its human observers.

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And it was during the course of our daily river trips that we saw Lowland Tapirs 

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And on our final trip leaving Cristalino, a trio of Giant Otters, fishing casually along the shore and then launching themselves onto a fallen tree trunk over the water, to digest and warm up in the sun.

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But wait a minute, wasn’t this supposed to be a birding trip?  Yes, indeed, and the birds were plentiful, but in the Amazon the animal life is spectacular also.  In addition to the mammals pictured above, during the course of the week we saw or heard Tufted Capuchin monkeys, Red-handed Howler Monkeys, White-cheeked Spider Monkeys,

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Capybaras, Spotted Pacas, Azara’s Agoutis, Brazilian Porcupine, Proboscis Bats, Greater Sac-winged Bats, Fishing Bats (Greater Bulldogs), Geoffroy’s Side-necked Turtles, Spectacled, Dwarf (Curvier’s) and Black Caiman, Running Lizards and a Tree Boa.

So now to the birds:  We had 5 full days of birding with no Trumpeter.  On the last day we had a very short morning available for a concentrated effort by all to find some Trumpeters.  With time running out on my effort to add this family to my life list, Rob suddenly asked for complete silence as he cupped his ear to the distant sound of—what–?  Trumpeters in the jungle undergrowth.  The first sign we had had all week.  With luck he might call them near the trail.  And luck we had.  Soon, one, two, three, four, five Trumpeters showed up on the trail (behind us), and put on a 3-4 minute show for us all.

Alisdair Hunter of Ottawa captured the moment.  With his permission, I include here his photographs of our Dark-winged Trumpeters.

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You can also Google “Dark-winged Trumpeter” at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, “Multimedia/Neotropical Birds on Line” where you can see many images of this most interesting bird, and also hear the unusual calls and moans of these noisy characters, made as they cover great swaths of territory in the jungle undergrowth.

So with the Trumpeter family added to my list, I now have 215 of the current Clement’s List of 250 Avian families.  More families are being created every year due to DNA sequencing and the resulting reclassification that is in process.  When the Clements World List was last published as a hard bound volume in 2007, which was about when I started keeping track of families, there were 203 of them.  From 203 families in 2007 to 250 in 2018 is a rapid expansion.  As for my species count, at Cristalino it increased by a modest 54 to a total of 3,708.

Following are some of the more interesting birds we saw at or near Cristalino. All of the following photos are by Alasdair Hunter, one of the participants in the tour, and are included here with his permission:

Curl-crested Aracari

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Bare-faced Currassow (female)

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Red-throated Piping Guan

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Ornate Hawk-eagle

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Agami Heron

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Hoatzin

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Blue and Yellow Macaws

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Point-tailed Palmcreeper

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Crimson-bellied Parakeets

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Sunbittern

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Blue-necked Tanager

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White-throated Toucan

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Capuchin Monkey

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My next international trip will be to the Dominican Republic in March, 2019.  Within this relatively small country it is possible for me to add 5 families, a personal gold mine, as the number of new families available to me, especially in the western hemisphere, dwindle.  The 5 new (to me) Dominican Republic families are:  Tody (2 species, Broad-billed and Narrow-billed Tody),  Palmchat (Dulus Dominicus), Hispaniolan Spindalis, Black-crowned Palm-Tanager, and Chat-Tanager (2 species, Eastern and Western). Assuming 100% success, which seems likely based on prior tour reports, that will leave only 4 families unseen (by me) in the western hemisphere: Sapayoa, missed due to safety concerns in my recent trip to Ecuador; Sharpbill, reliable only in southeast Brazil, Cuban Warblers, (2 species), and Puerto Rican Tanager.  Whether or not I will try for any of them remains to be determined.

Ecuador Northwest Birding – 2018

We arrived in Quito (elevation 9,350 feet) on August 8th, a day before our tour was to begin. This gave us an opportunity, although short, to explore Quito on the 9th.  On the morning of the 9th we taxied from the Hotel Quito to the Teleferiqo Gondola, for a cool (literally and figuratively) ride up the lower slopes of the still active Pichincha Volcano (peak elevation, 15,696 feet, last eruption 2002).   The City of Quito was built in the 16th and 17th centuries on the site of an old Inca city, and the city and its environs wraps around the eastern slopes of Pichincha.  With its current 1.6 million inhabitants, in a narrow valley, the city spreads out for miles.  We enjoyed the downward view to the city and its buildings and the upward view to Pichincha from the top of the gondola, and a bit further, as we took a short upward hike in the wind, so I was doubly winded.

Another taxi ride took us down to Old Town, where we found the enclosed market and sampled the very inexpensive lunch offerings available at the little stands in the market.  From there we took a hike up to the extremely ornate Compania de Jesus Jesuit Church.  Once again I abandoned discretion, and climbed the rickety scaffolding to the interior top of the church for an inside view of the great old church, and from its ramparts, a view west to the gigantic statue of the Winged Virgin.

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One more taxi ride took us to the Square, with its multitudes, many offers of shoeshines, excellent Gelato, and in general, a relaxing walk about the square and some of the surrounding architectural attractions. In anticipation of a strenuous week of birding beginning at 5:00 a.m. on the morrow, we took an early exit from the city to return to the hotel and a pleasant dinner with some good Chilean wine.

I have previously posted a short blog relating only to some of the Hummingbirds seen and photographed by our guide, Andres Vasquez. For context, here is a summary of our complete itinerary:  August 10, Quito to Yanacocha, where we hiked for the morning; then on to our Tandayapa Lodge for the next 3 nights; August 11, birding the upper Tandayapa Valley (7,200-5000 elevation);   August 12, birding Mashpi Amagusa area and Milpe;  August 13, at the wonderful Paz de Las Aves, for the Cock of the Rock lek and the Pittas, among others, night at Mirador del Rio Blanco; August 14, Mashpi Shungo Reserve, night at Mirador del Rio Blanco; long drive to Guango on the eastern slope, night at Guango Lodge; 15 August, back toward Quito via Papallacta and Antisana; to our hotel near the airport in Puembo, with time, arranged by Andres on the spur of the moment, for a side visit to Puembo Birding Garden nicely hosted by Mercedes.

Andres authorized me to include the following photos taken by him during our tour.

A great look at a low overhead Andean Condor at Antisano:

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A Chestnut-crowned Antpitta:

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A Flame-faced Tanager:

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A Lemon-rumped Tanager:

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A Many-striped Canastero, at about 14,000 feet on a cold, cloudy, wet and windy day, with a few snow patches along the way-yes, at the Equator:

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An Orange-breasted Fruiteater:

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A target bird, new family, Rufous-crowned Gnatpitta:

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A Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager:

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A Tawny Antpitta:

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A target bird, new family, Toucan Barbet at Amarosa:

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A White-bearded Manakin:

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A White-throated Quail-dove at Amarosa:

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Along the way, Adam and I tried to snap a few pictures on our cell phones, and here are a few of our best efforts, first mine:

Adam at TeleferiQo 

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Crimson-rumped Toucanet

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Black-backed Wood Quail   

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Adam and I at Refugio Paz de las Aves

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An Agouti 

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Cocoa tree, with cocoa bean pods (and we sampled the product, chocolate bars).

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And here are some of Adam’s shots:

The two of us:

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Here is a long view of a Black and Chestnut Eagle, which Adam was the first to spot as we relaxed at a beautiful overlook.  Andres was quite excited to find this rarity, and as we soaked in the view of one, a second flew in.

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Quail Dove at Amagua:

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A toucanet:

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At the Cock of the Rock lek:

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Golden headed Quetzel:

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Toucan:

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Snow on the mountain at the Equator:

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The two birder dudes:

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My new families for this trip were the Toucan-Barbet, the Chestnut-crowned Gnatpitta (now in the Gnateater family), and the new split from the big Tanager (Thraupidae) family, the Mitrospingidae family, consisting of just 3 former tanagers.  The one I saw was the Dusky-faced Tanager.  My fourth Ecuadorean family target, the Sapayoa, will have to await another trip, perhaps to a safer destination. In the meantime, Adam returned home and I went to the Cristalino Jungle Lodge in Brazil, primarily to see another new family for me, a Trumpeter.

 

 

 

 

 

Ecuador Hummingbirds – August 2018

Son-in-law Adam and I signed on with Tropical Birding for a private birding tour of northern Ecuador.  We engaged in extended email correspondence trying to come up with an itinerary that would include a Cock-of-the Rock lek and 4 bird families I had never seen:  Toucan Barbet, Gnateater, Sapayoa and the Mitrospingidae tanager family recently split from the greater Tanager family, Thraupidae.  Several weeks before the planned tour, Tropical Birding informed us that there had been terrorist activities in the far northern area along the Columbia border, where we would have expected to find Sapayoa.  That area was deleted from our itinerary.

Barbara and I had spent a day with a guide in the Tandayapa area near Quito when we stopped there on our way to a cruise in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago, so I had seen a number of the birds of the area.  Nevertheless, this trip produced a grand total of 158 new life birds for me, out of a total of about 320 species. Our guide, Andres, and Adam, saw and heard quite a few more than that, but with my aging eyes, I am unable to distinguish some of the birds, especially those that dwell high up in the trees, or in dark, brushy areas, so the trip actually yielded significantly more than the 320 that I was able to claim.

As the trip began, I told Andres that I would welcome his photography as the trip went along, as neither I nor Adam are adept at, nor particularly interested in, photography.  The condition attached to that invitation to take a lot of pictures, was that he would send me his better photos and allow me to use them in this blog.  He readily agreed, and the first installment of those pictures “The Hummingbirds of northern Ecuador”, follow.

The Tropical Birding list of potential sightings for the entire trip contains 65 different Hummingbird species.  That figure is startlingly large, but the mountains of Ecuador are the Mecca of the Hummingbird family.  Compare that to our 1 specie, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the only specie commonly seen anywhere east of the Rockies in North America.  Of the 65 potential Hummingbirds, I was able to see and identify 42.  Of the 42, 15 were new life birds for me.  The 7 that Andres chose to send to me for inclusion in this blog are:

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Buff-tailed Coronet

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Collared Inca

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Long-tailed Sylph

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Purple-throated Woodstar

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Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

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Sword-billed Hummingbird