Rockjumper Birding Tours – Worldwide Bird Tours http://www.rockjumperbirding.com Fri, 20 Jan 2017 18:50:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.1 The Biggest Day: A New World Record http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2017/01/20/biggest-day-new-world-record http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2017/01/20/biggest-day-new-world-record#respond Fri, 20 Jan 2017 15:57:11 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=63731 Among birders, it is widely thought that perhaps the greatest test of a birder’s field skills is during a “Big Day”, when a team of birders try to see as many bird species as possible in a single 24-hour period. To even have a chance at a high species total, all team members must possess…

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Among birders, it is widely thought that perhaps the greatest test of a birder’s field skills is during a “Big Day”, when a team of birders try to see as many bird species as possible in a single 24-hour period. To even have a chance at a high species total, all team members must possess great field skills, great logistical skills, and must also plan, execute and adapt the team’s route during the day. Field skills are key, but planning, and experience with the route are equally important.

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The Biggest Day Team, with Dušan on the right

On 8 October 2015 in Ecuador, team members Rudy Gelis, Mitch Lysinger, Tuomas Seimola and Rockjumper’s own Dušan Brinkhuizen identified a total of 431 bird species within a 24-hour period, surpassing the magical 400 species boundary for the very first time in history; and in the process setting a new world record! They had hoped with luck and careful planning, a world title was possible, but none expected they’d best the previous world record by 77 (!) species. Below, veteran guide Dušan Brinkhuizen gives us a rundown on a history of Big Days past, and of and the magical day that was October 8th, 2015.

The Biggest Day: A New Record

By Dušan Brinkhuizen  

Rockjumper Guide Dušan Brinkhuizen is based in Ecuador and guides to a great variety of destinations.

First, A Brief History

The world’s first famous big day record was set by the late Ted Parker and Scott Robinson on 30 September 1982. More than thirty years ago the two ornithologists conducted their count in pristine habitats of Amazonian lowland forest at Cocha Cashu Biological Station, Madre de Dios, in southeast Peru. Their effort was done by foot and canoe in a relatively small but mega-diverse area. During this legendary effort, with no use of any motorized transportation Parker and Robinson tallied an astonishing total of 331 bird species.

This record stood until 30 November 1986 when Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe performed a big day count in Kenya. Their team used two airplanes and nine vehicles during an amazing effort that recorded 342 bird species. More recently, a Louisiana State University team with Dan Lane, Mike Harvey, Glen Seeholzer and Fernando Angulo broke the long-standing Kenya record on 14 October 2014 (Seeholzer et al. 2015). The LSU team ended up with 354 bird species, beating the previous world record by twelve species. Seeholzer et al. started their count at Pomacochas Lake in the eastern Andes in northern Peru and continued down the east-slope by vehicle, ending their effort in the lowlands of the Moyabamba valley.

The success of the LSU team’s new record sparked renewed interest in the World Big Day concept among resident birders in Ecuador who had always been keen in attempting one there. The route in northern Peru also confirmed the great potential of the Andean east-slope, and was helpful in conceiving a route along the vast east-slope of Ecuador, which can be birded right along the equator.

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Birding the High Andes

The team, route and preparations

Ecuador is arguably the most biodiverse country on the planet. The country’s bird list approaches a staggering 1700 species. Peru, Colombia and Brazil boast higher totals but these countries are also much larger too. The mighty equatorial Andes harbor a unique range of ecozones, that occur as distinct altitudinal bands of rich tropical habitats, and in Ecuador from the Chocó in the west to the mega-diverse Amazon basin in the east, the proximity of these ecozones make for enormous, easily accessible biodiversity.

Designing the perfect big day route is not an easy task. For a few years we thought that combining both east and west would be the optimal way to go. However, with only 12 hours of daylight, time is a limiting factor. It would take at least eight hours just to drive from the Amazon basin to the western lowlands. Driving during the night between the two would allow a team to combine both ecosystems, but this setup would never work in a single calendar day.

We pivoted to the great potential of Ecuador’s east-slope along the Cosanga-Narupa transect. The annual Christmas Bird Counts held in Cosanga, Napo province, in recent years had seen claims of counts (with many teams of dozens of observers, spread out and working together) surpassing 500 species. For years our team members had been birding the eastern foothills and subtropics of this region (Rudy and Mitch even residing there), so we knew this was a key area. Unfortunately, construction of the highway from Quito to Tena has adversely affected the birding along this transect, but from a big day perspective it was actually an advantage as driving times were halved from about eight hours to less than five.

In early March 2015 Dušan and Rudy picked up the topic of doing an Ecuador big day together and they came with a simple conclusion: “let’s just do it”. In what ended up as a trial run for their record day, Tuomas Seimola had flown in from Finland, an enormous advantage, as Tuomas is an extremely skilled spotter. During this first effort we learned the advantages of having a non-participating companion aboard. Peter Joost joined us, helping with many things like catering but conforming with ABA rules, he was not allowed to point out birds to us during the count. After a couple of days scouting Rudy, Tuomas and Dušan set out on 8 March, and while the night birding went well, the weather at the dawn chorus site was a disaster, with constant rain. Since we were all free the following days we postponed our effort to the next day. At 13:00 we drank a few beers at Yanayacu Biological Station and since we had been birding intensely from midnight onward it was super easy to fall asleep. The alarms woke us up at 23:45 and because our internal clock had been adjusted completely we were more than awake and ready for another big day run! The weather was much better on the 9th and we tallied a total of 335 bird species. This first effort provides us bronze medal status, regarding the world title, but we knew with better preparations more was in store.

Over the coming weeks another attempt on the record gathered steam. Rudy started a small fund raising webpage which worked out well and with the donations of friends our second attempt came to fruition. Tuomas decided to fly over from Finland again, but there was no doubt we needed an extra pair of eyes and ears. As luck would have it, we were able to recruit “magic” Mitch Lysinger, an expert recordist and Ecuador birder, who was able to get time off and strengthen our squad. George Paul was invited also as a non-participating companion and official witness of the big day. He flew in from the US to document the entire 24-hour effort with high-tech recording and video equipment. By doing this, our big day effort would become auditable and more credible than non-documented efforts, thereby setting a new standard for serious world record big day attempts.

Optimizing the route was now a priority, as we knew we needed a much tighter schedule than we had in March. Time management on a big day is perhaps the greatest challenge. During scouting we specifically looked for active nests, roosts, fruiting trees and searched for backup territories for as many species as possible. We tried to get a better idea of the daily patterns and whereabouts of mixed-species feeding flocks. Especially during the last days prior to the count we birded almost as intense as we would do on the big day itself. These dry runs served as great training for our spotting and communication skills as a team.

Foothill Screech-Owl

Even though our Amazonian trans-Andean route seemed solid we felt the need of an extra strategy that would significantly increase our changes for a world title. The idea of including a flight intrigued, but with a flight critical birding time is lost during check-in and while flying. Therefore, a flight during the least productive time of the day would be the best scenario, and in our case this was the evening after dusk. But where in Ecuador do we maximize new species on our second session of night birding? After some thought, Dušan phoned Ben Haase, Ecuador’s sea- and shore bird expert living in Salinas, Santa Elena province, who was able to confirm that night birding in the local salt pans might be good. In the past Ben had been banding shore birds at night and according to him there was plenty of bird activity, even after dark. Dušan and his wife Lorena scouted out Salinas three weeks prior to the big day. A night trip with Ben into the salt pans of Ecuasal was a huge success and in the moonlight they were able to identify over 30 species of birds! For a couple of nights the salt pans, mangroves and sea shore was scouted out and a so-called “power route” of 3 hours was designed carefully. Many of the bird species encountered were actually foraging at night and surprisingly the majority of them seemed to be site faithful too. For example, Willet, American Oystercatcher and Sanderling would typically forage on the beach, while the smaller Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers would be inside the salt pans. Apart from the aquatic birds Dušan and Lorena searched the gardens and bushes in town with spotlights. It was extremely difficult to find sleeping birds during night time but waking up the house dogs and alarming the police was easy! In the end we did find two roosting sites of Long-tailed Mockingbird and a roost of Red-masked Parakeets.

Based on the scouting we felt adding Salinas the 2nd night was a good bet. But still we had to get there. And then, almost as if by fate, a quick check online revealed a single rare monthly flight from Quito to Salinas on 8 October at 19:30: the perfect timing for our big day. With only six seats left decisions had to be made immediately, and after a few more phone calls the flights were booked!

 

8 October 2015, the big day

It was a special feeling when the alarm clock went off. We immediately looked outside the window: no rain and the sky looked promising! We met on the balcony of the San Isidro lodge lounge, and everybody was on time, awake and dressed, with great anticipation about the crazy and exciting adventure ahead! With ten minutes until midnight, George tested his microphone setup, and Mitch and Tuomas scanned with the spotlights, hoping to find perched birds. Then came the call, “OK guys, it is 0:00, 8 October 2015, our big day officially started”. Everybody was dead silent until 0:01.

Rufous-banded Owl, the first bird of the count, calling beautifully in front of us. A minute later, the Black-banded “San Isidro” Owl called behind us: check! We quickly went to the vehicle and double-checked everybody had their gear. The vehicle setup was: Rudy driving, Tuomas at co-pilot and front-spotter, Mitch and Dušan as side-spotters with George squeezed in the middle. 20 minutes were scheduled for the Andean Potoo search. Unfortunately, the bird eluded us, so we had to move on to our next target. At the Huacamayos pass Swallow-tailed Nightjar was not cooperating either, but a White-throated Screech-owl was a great consolation. Lower down the slope we got both Rufescent and Foothill Screech-owl singing nicely in response to our tape. Our next stop was a Band-bellied Owl territory. The previous night we had watched a beautiful pair at a streetlight but unfortunately this time there was a perched Black-banded Owl instead! It was a very nice sighting but the Black-banded Owl likely chased away our target owl, so we tried at backup sites further along Loreto road but with no success. A roadside nest of Blue-fronted Lancebill was a great find during scouting, and a quick check with the spotlight confirmed the presence of an incubating adult. Lyre-tailed Nightjar at the cliff was our next successful stop before heading down to the lowlands. Our owling session in terrafirme forest was huge success. At a single spot we bagged Tawny-bellied and Tropical Screech-owl, Common Potoo and Spectacled Owl! The Nocturnal Curassow was singing much closer to the road than the previous night and listening to its booming call over the Amazonian rainforest was truly a magical moment. White-throated Tinamou and Crested Owl were heard nicely but we couldn’t find Great Potoo. After tape playback at a backup site a beautiful adult Great Potoo flew overhead in the spotlights. Another magical moment!

16 species at 4:49.

White-lored Antpitta

At 4:49 we continued towards the magnificent Rio Napo. A short stop at the airstrip got us a huge bonus species: a Barn Owl perched atop a fencepost! Hoatzin was picked up at a small swamp according to schedule a couple of minutes before reaching our dawn chorus locality. On site it was still relatively quiet except for Ferruginous Pygmy-owl and Grey-necked Wood-rail calling in the distance at 5:19. The avian concert of the dawn chorus was coming and the next half hour was crucial. We knew exactly what species to expect but our scouting taught us that dawn song activity of individuals varied by the day. For example, today Rusty-fronted Tody-flycatcher started calling earlier than usual while Fuscous Flycatcher started relatively late and Stripe-chested Antwren wasn’t singing at all. Soon many more species started singing and it quickly became a challenge to pick new species out of a beautiful but busy soundscape. Target species such as Black-banded Crake, Riparian Antbird, Solitary Black Cacique, Castelnau’s Antshrike, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet and Dusky-cheeked Foliage-gleaner were picked up according to plan. The resident White-lored Antpitta got us nervous for a moment but eventually started calling. The loud and superb call of a Buckley’s Forest-falcon was a nice surprise before it became light and we quickly picked up species visually as well. A small pond produced Solitary and Spotted Sandpiper, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, Striated Heron and Blue-winged Teal. A Scarlet Tanager atop a bush spotted by Mitch was our first so-called “dirty bird”, a bird not seen by all team members. Although we were allowed to have a few dirty birds (less than 5% of the shared total, per ABA rules) we worked very hard to get the whole team on every bird. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Tanager had flown off before everybody got their bins on it.

92 species at 6:22. 

A short stop at Tena airport was good for swallows and we picked up Grey-breasted Martin, White-winged, White-banded and Barn Swallow within seconds, but a huge surprise here was a Willow Flycatcher singing in full glory at 6:30. Not an everyday Ecuadorian sighting for sure! Tropical Mockingbird was at the parking lot but our Cattle Tyrant wasn’t home today. A flock of Black-and-white Seedeaters was in a seeding field nearby, and a short stop at the “bat bridge” got us the expected Zimmer’s Flatbill, Yellow-browed Tody-flycatcher and Spot-winged Antbird. After some successful birding in open country and secondary habitats with species including Lettered Aracari, Rufous-sided Crake, Yellow-crowned Amazon and Sulphury Flycatcher we continued on to our next site: “Rudy’s road”. This paved road traversing a nice stretch of mature lowland terrafirme forest had been promising during scouting. We did have kind of a slow start with a lone Dusky-chested Flycatcher in the canopy and some other single species here and there. What we really needed was a substantial canopy mixed-species flock but today it seemed that everything was more scattered. At 7:24 we had a remarkable boost of rare birds in a short timeframe. A Hairy-crested Antbird was calling as we stepped out of the vehicle. A minute later a splendid Red-necked Woodpecker flew by which was soon followed by a Casqued Oropendula! Calls of both White-plumed and White-cheeked Antbird strongly suggested the presence of army ants inside the forest. What a pity we didn’t have the time to check for ground-cuckoos! Lemon-chested Greenlet and Olivaceous Flatbill were welcome additions too. We never got to hit that massive flock that we were hoping for but we did pick up a good number of species including Spix’s Guan, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Rusty-belted Tapaculo, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Spangled Cotinga, Gray-breasted Sabrewing, Moustached Antwren, Black-headed Parrot, Crowned Slaty Flycatcher, Black-bellied Cuckoo and Masked Tanager to name a few. Chestnut-headed Crake was being naughty and for the first time did not call. It was difficult to leave the species-rich terrafirme forest, but we had to stick to the plan.

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Black-bellied Cuckoo

195 species at 8:45.

 

On our way back to Tena we had several “emergency” road stops. Blue-winged Parrotlet was seen on the wires just outside Misahuallí and shortly after Rudy hit the brakes again for a splendid White-browed Purpletuft. Our backup Stripe-chested Antwren was seen within seconds after getting out of the vehicle. As it was heating up at 9:42 we made a tactical stop for sky-scanning. Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite and Plumbeous Kite were circling above the forest and a large mixed-flock of swifts overhead contained both Spot-fronted Swift and White-chested Swift. Leaving the lowlands behind at 10:00 everything went according to schedule so far!

215 species at 10:00.

 

The foothills of Loreto road went well, especially since we had just a single hour here. A Blackish Nightjar was at its day-roost and a nearby flock yielded Lined Antshrike, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager, Slate-throated Whitestart, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet and Russet Antshrike. A stop at the quarry yielded Cliff Flycatcher, Olivaceous Siskin, Golden-eyed Flowerpiercer and a bonus Rufous-tailed Tyrant. Rudy with his amazing ability to pick up sounds in the far distance suddenly said: “it’s calling back, the puffbird that you just whistled”. Indeed, after tuning in we all could hear the Striolated Puffbird in the far distance. It was responding for the first time after many tryouts, persistence paid off! Another loose flock produced some goodies such as Yellow-breasted Antwren, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, Orange-eared Tanager, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner and Red-headed Barbet. Golden-eared Tanager felt as our biggest miss along Loreto road, especially because we probably had a pair fly overhead.

260 species at 12:00.

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Blackish Nightjar

It was time to move up into the subtropics. A so-called “monster flock” was detected along the highway near Cocodrillos at 12:33 and added an amazing 24 species to the list. It was one of those dream mixed-species flocks with quality birds such as Rufous-crested Tanager, Blue-browed Tanager, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, Barred Becard, Oleaginous Hemispingus and Black-billed Peppershrike, all at eye level. Even a splendid Chestnut-bellied Thrush popped up, what a feast! Up at the Huacamayos pass we added some more novelties including Lacrimose Mountain Tanager, Grass-green Tanager, Sepia-brown Wren, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Green-and-black Fruiteater and Bluish Flowerpiercer. We dipped the White-capped Dipper at the Rio Cosanga and quickly continued to Cabañas San Isidro. In less than an hour we added 32 species from this area. The flocks produced the expected White-tailed Tyrannulet, Smoke-colored Pewee, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Pale-edged Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet, Mountain Wren, Olive-backed and Montane Woodcreeper, Masked Flowerpiercer, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner and Russet-crowned Warbler among others. The feeders and flowers in the garden attracted Sparkling and Green Violetear, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Bronzy Inca and Chestnut-breasted Coronet. The extensive bamboo in the area got us some targets such as Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Blackish and Ash-colored Tapaculo and Black-eared Hemispingus. Some of the tougher species that we got at the start of Macucaloma trail were Barred Antthrush, White-bellied Antpitta and Black-chested Fruiteater. We left San Isidro at 14:00 sharp with so far 329 species in the bag!

329 species at 14:00.

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Chestnut-bellied Thrush

A quick stop in front of the police checkpoint got us Torrent Tyrannulet and a fantastic pair of Torrent Duck. The officials did not understand why we were doing a celebration dance at the bridge and even though our hurried behaviour seemed kind of suspicious they let us pass without problem. “Crazy gringos” they must have thought. At the hospital of Baeza we successfully twitched a long-staying Pied Water Tyrant (Ecuador’s second documented record) together with a male Vermillion Flycatcher, and then at the gas station “eagle-eye” Tuomas picked up an adult Black-and-chestnut Eagle. Another memorable sighting was that of a Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant heard from the open car window while driving on the highway towards Guango lodge. In chorus we called out “Chat-Tyrant” followed by a good laugh and of course there was no need to turn back. At Guango the bird activity was surprisingly slow and we had serious troubles finding one of the typical “pipeline flocks”. We only added White-banded Tyrannulet, Spectacled Whitestart and Gray-hooded Bush Tanager. The hummingbird feeders were efficient adding Sword-billed Hummingbird, Collared Inca, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Buff-tailed Coronet, Tyrian Metaltail, White-bellied Woodstar and Tourmaline Sunangel to the list.

348 species at 15:45.

 

After Guango we moved up to Papallacta where bird activity was getting better again. It was weird we couldn’t find Shining Sunbeam at the flowers but we did get Viridian Metaltail and the rare Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. A short “flock stop” along the highway added Agile Tit-Tyrant, Cinereous Conebill, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Gray-browed Brush-Finch and a bonus Purple-backed Thornbill. We were surprised when several vehicles pulled up next to us and people got out of their cars wondering what we were watching. It was funny seeing their confused faces as we rushed back into the car leaving them behind. Papallacta lake was efficient and at Papallacta pass at 4000m altitude we did well with Blue-mantled Thornbill, Carunculated Caracara, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-striped Canastero and Variable Hawk. At 17:20 with less than an hour of daylight we really had to move on to Quito airport. An adult Black-chested Buzzard-eagle on our way down (again spotted by Tuomas) was a great addition.

384 species at 17:27.

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Agile Tit-Tyrant

We reached the airport pond five minutes behind schedule at 18:05, which was also our last stop before check-in. Harris’s Hawk, Pied-billed Grebe, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope and Sand Martin were welcome additions here. A memorable Peregrine Falcon hunting above the pond at dusk was our last new species before heading to the airport terminal.

 

Then Dušan broke the news. He’d been keeping track of the species total with a digital recorder, and informed the team that we had already broken the world record about two hours ago and that our current total was standing at 392 species!

“Seriously guys, I’m not joking”.

 

A split second of disbelief was instantly followed by loud cheering. Tuomas replied: “I knew it you sneak, you kept it secret so we would keep on birding!” Those few minutes of cheering in the vehicle were incredible and we could only think of one other thing: 400 here we come!

 

 

In ecstasy and drugged by adrenaline we entered the airport terminal for check-in. It must have been our best and funniest airport experience ever. Tuomas his tripod and scope were causing a little trouble but when we explained that we were currently breaking the world record in birding they let us take it as hand luggage. Before we knew we were sitting in the plane enjoying our first “time-out” for the day. Rudy was relieved because he did not have to drive anymore!

392 species at 18:09.

 

At 20:40 we arrived in Salinas and Ben Haase and driver Luis were waiting for us outside in a pick-up truck. The four of us jumped in the back of the open pickup, and George went in the cabin with his microphone sticking out the window, pointed at us. “What an incredible setup, Dušan. This idea of yours is insane!” At 20:46 we tapped the roof top and Luis hit the brakes. “Backup Luis, something was sitting on the wire”. A Burrowing Owl, what an amazing start! Our next stop was the mockingbird tree in town. “This is not a mockingbird: it’s a West-Peruvian Dove! Wait, the Long-tailed Mockingbird is sleeping right above it!” Three minutes later we stopped at the Red-masked Parakeet roost. It all went so smooth that we watched the birds without getting out of the trunk. At 21:00 we drove to Santa Rosa harbour, our only shot at Magnificent Frigatebird. “There is one, sleeping on top of that lamppost”. A quick scan in the harbour got us Brown Pelican and Yellow-crowned Night-heron. We cruised slowly along the beach of Mar Bravo which produced Willet, Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover. “Wow, that intimidator spotlight turns darkness into daylight!” The mangrove and mudflat at Punta Carnero was our next stop. Wilson’s Plover was our main target here and an adult flew in superbly! Roseate Spoonbill and Short-billed Dowitcher foraging in a ditch were nice and at 22:00 it was time to get into the salt pans. Ben had requested special permission for us to enter at this unusual time and the guard opened up the gate. Once inside, our first stop was the heron tree, swamped with Snowy Egrets, a Tricolored Heron and we picked out a single Cattle Egret, a common species that kept eluding us today. We continued along the pond system and Luis did a fantastic job driving. As soon as we tapped the roof he carefully stopped the car and switched off the motor. Kelp and Gray-hooded Gull, White-cheeked Pintail, Cocoi Heron, Whimbrel, Least and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Neotropic Cormorant and a dike with tons of roosting Peruvian Pelicans were among the new species added to the list. A dense party of Gray Gulls with their beautiful vocalizations was a memorable sighting for sure. Further down the embankment a large flock of terns roosting on a mudflat added four species namely Elegant, South American, Sandwich and Royal Tern. Tuomas scoped the waders on the mudflat and believe it or not he picked the long-staying vagrant Marbled Godwit out of the crowd! At 23:30 we went to look for Chilean Flamingo. Normally a fairly easy task at Ecuasal but because of the El Niño only a single individual was left. Luckily we knew exactly in which pond to look for it! At 23:50 a lone fast-running “peep” caught our attention while scanning the extensive sand bars. When we got closer we confirmed it was indeed a smart Snowy Plover, our final new species of the count.

 

At midnight we took some team pictures in front of a mound of salt to celebrate our victory of surpassing 400 species in a single day! In town at a friend’s place cold beers and delicious home-made seafood dinner was waiting for us. What an incredible big day it was!

431 species at 23:50.

ecuador birding toursSummary of statistics

Our effort was conducted following the guidelines of the American Birding Association (ABA, link: http://listing.aba.org/big-day-count-rules/). ABA follows the rule that at least 95% of all species must be seen or heard by all members of the team. Our shared total was 415 species recorded by all four members (96.3%). We had 16 dirty birds, species missed by some of the team members (3.7%), that we were allowed to add to the grand total according to the 95% rule. A total of 305 species were visually seen (70.8%) and another 126 species (29.2%) were heard-only.

Family totals include 12 owls (including Barn Owl), 9 swifts, 27 hummingbirds, 8 parrots, 9 woodpeckers, 24 ovenbirds, 19 antbirds, 54 tyrant flycatchers, 9 swallows, 11 wrens, 52 tanagers and 10 New World Warblers. Rufous-banded Owl was the first species recorded and Snowy Plover was our final species of the count. Red-crested Cotinga was our world record breaking species (#355). As far as we know this has been the first big day effort that was documented during the full 24-hours with audio equipment. The total distance covered by vehicle was c. 385 km. Our highest elevation reached was at Papallacta Pass (4000m). The total species list can be viewed here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283498360_World_Record_Big_Day_Ecuador_-_Data_report.

Roll with Rockjumper to Ecuador!

 

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Melanesia: The Most Well-Known Unknown Place on Earth http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2017/01/10/melanesia-well-known-unknown-place-earth http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2017/01/10/melanesia-well-known-unknown-place-earth#respond Tue, 10 Jan 2017 16:11:41 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=62164   Ask most folks where Melanesia is and more likely than not you’re met with a blank stare. To some it sounds more like a health condition best avoided, more so than a place name. Indeed, even of the “-esia” regions it is not the best known, overshadowed by Polynesia and/or the tiny shards and…

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Ask most folks where Melanesia is and more likely than not you’re met with a blank stare. To some it sounds more like a health condition best avoided, more so than a place name. Indeed, even of the “-esia” regions it is not the best known, overshadowed by Polynesia and/or the tiny shards and specks of land scattered across the western tropical Pacific that constitute the Federated States of Micronesia. Even people who don’t know where Polynesia and Micronesia are, have at least heard of them. Perhaps only Macaronesia, in the eastern tropical Atlantic, home to the Canary and Cape Verde islands, is less well known than Melanesia. And this is precisely part of its appeal.

melanesian cruise

Route of the Melanesia Discoverer cruise, 8-21 October 2017, from Papua New Guinea, through the Bismarcks into the Solomons.

melanesian cruise

Route of the Secrets of Melanesia cruise, 20-31 October 2017, from the Solomons on through Vanuatu. Plus a New Caledonia extension!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can a place be both famous and unknown? Seems impossible, yet that is the nebulous territory in our gray matter where Melanesia has taken up residence. Also known as “The Black Islands” (for reasons no one quite seems to agree upon), in fact there are over 2000 Islands in the region, several of which gained fame as battlegrounds in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Others remain hardly ever visited by westerners. Military occupation and battles along the Coral Sea at places like Guadalcanal enshrined this region in history, yet there are places like Tetepare, the South Pacific’s largest uninhabited island, and the Duff and Santa Cruz islands that have still seen few visitors. This is an archipelago of coral atolls, volcanoes, and idyllic tropical waters. Anchored north of Australia, the region includes (north to south) Papua New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. And it is a place of staggering biodiversity.

The Kagu, an odd endemic of New Caledonia, is the only species in its family, and thus a target on the New Caledonia extension.

Because this is one of the world’s most avian, endemic-rich hotspots on the planet, most diehard birders know it is a must-visit. The 200 or so endemic birds represent a big chunk of the world’s avifuana that cannot be seen anywhere else, but the problem has always been, how do you do it? How do you survey a bunch of little islands in the remote tropical Pacific? Until the arrival of these two new back-to-back Melanesian cruises, Melanesia Discoverer and Secrets of Melanesia, the best one could do was hope to puddle-jump a little here and there. Now, however, through these itineraries, the whole of Melanesia is within reach, and so many birds that forever lurked only as phantoms in the pages of our field guides can now be seen, heard, photographed and remembered. And discoveries may await.

One thing we do know, is that if you like doves and pigeons, this is ripe territory for you. Some of the world’s most spectacular and range-restricted doves are found here, including Nicobar Pigeon, Claret-breasted and Yellow-bibbed Fruit Doves, and Collared, Pinon’s, Zoe’s and Torresian Imperial Pigeon, to name a few. And other groups proliferate as well, with nearly every island sporting its own white-eye, myzomela or monarch. Of course there are the standout stars too to search for, such as Superb Pitta, Vanuatu Megapode, Sanford’s Sea Eagle, Mussau Triller, Palm Cockatoo, Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Cardinal Lory, Steel-Blue Flycatcher, and New Caledonia is famous as the only place in the world to see the odd, unusual, and monotypic Kagu.

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Claret-breasted Fruit Doves are one among a stunning variety of spectacular dove species frequenting the idyllic islands.

 

The birds are just the beginning. This is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, with over 1300 languages known. Thirteen hundred! That’s one fifth of the total languages on the planet. Think about that. That is just over 700 square km/langauge, which is is by far the highest density of languages in the world. Today Melanesia is comprised of independent nations, or countries administered by France, and Christianity is the dominant religion. As noted, this is an area rich in history, and not just from the military action during the World Wars, but also as a place that gave rise to the Lapita people who, dating back to 1600BC, appear to be the first humans to have achieved real expertise in seamanship and sea navigation. And it was they who eventually went on to colonize the remotest islands, such as Hawaii and Easter Island.

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Melanesia includes Papua New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji, and is one of the most culturally rich regions on the planet.

And yet for the most part, what’s in Melanesia stays in Melanesia. This is true of both the birds and the people. That is how you end up with hundreds of languages evolving in close proximity to one another, and dozens of endemic bird species. There is very little traffic in or out, which is part of why so few have been still, and this produces a genuine uniqueness. An examination of the avifuana shows that very few bird species migrate in, out or through the islands. Nearly everything there just stays there, and that is true whether you are a Bougainville Bush Warbler (described just in 2006), or a Solomon Islander. Mostly you stay put. And heck, why wouldn’t you? There is nothing wrong with the weather and the waters are a beautiful blue all year long.

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Melanesia holds some of the most spectacular coral reefs in the world with 3/4 of the world’s coral species.

Rich with birds, rich in culture and history, and anchored amid the heart of the Coral Triangle, Melanesia harbors ¾ of the world’s coral species and about 3000 fish species associated with them. And beyond the coral blue waters the scenery ain’t too shabby either, and much of the coastline seems lifted straight out of the film “The Blue Lagoon”. In fact the filming of that movie on Fiji in 1980 inadvertently revealed to the world a species of Iguana utterly unknown to science. Such discoveries likely yet remain. We will search for dugongs, spinner dolphins, and flying foxes, during this cruise through placid Melanesia. The seas here are quite calm compared to more turbulent parts of the Pacific, and provide a bounty of fresh seafood. Between sightings of Vulturine Parrot, Blyth’s Hornbill, and Paradise Drongo, we may see some of the largest beetles in the world, and possibly the largest butterfly on the planet, all while surrounded by blue waters offering arguably the best snorkeling in the world. Join George Armistead for a Rockjumper adventure to an avian frontier and a cultural goldmine, and make it Melanesia in 2017.

melanesian cruise

With about 200 endemic species, Melanesia also hosts a number of smart-looking regional specialties, such as the Moustached Treeswift.

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Bird of the Year 2016 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/12/30/bird-of-the-year-2016 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/12/30/bird-of-the-year-2016#respond Fri, 30 Dec 2016 13:00:08 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=62686 Another great year for birding has flown by, presenting our tour leaders with the difficult task of selecting their top bird out of hundreds and thousands of specials seen in 2016. The rest of us however have the pleasure of reading the year’s highlights from our leaders as recorded in their own words.   Grey-crested…

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Another great year for birding has flown by, presenting our tour leaders with the difficult task of selecting their top bird out of hundreds and thousands of specials seen in 2016. The rest of us however have the pleasure of reading the year’s highlights from our leaders as recorded in their own words.

 

Grey-crested Helmetshrike – Adam Riley

It took me 7 trips to the Serengeti, Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru, all known stake-outs for the scarce Grey-crested Helmetshrike, before I finally nailed my East African nemesis bird. During a safari around northern Tanzania in December, this species was my only potential lifer, and my eyes were obviously peeled. We were watching a pair of Bronze-winged Coursers with a young fluffy chick in the fabulous Grumeti concession, belonging to Singita to the west of the Serengeti, when I picked up movement in the corner of my eye…a flock of helmetshrikes! I had found helmetshrikes once before in Nakuru and they had turned out to be the common White species so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but with bated breath we approached and as soon as I saw their yellow eyes, lack of eye wattles, grey crests and half-collars on their chests I knew I had struck gold! What a thrill it was to finally locate this rare and little-known species restricted to south-western Kenya and adjacent northern Tanzania. And then to my surprise, later in the heat of the day whilst relaxing around the pool of our lodge, lo and behold, another flock of Grey-crested Helmetshrikes casually came as if they weren’t even anything special!

Grey-crested Helmetshrike – Adam Riley

 

Reeves’s Pheasant – Clayton Burne

2016 seems to have come and gone awfully quickly with another quiet year on the global lifer front. However, a chance opportunity saw me heading over to Asia for the 7th Asian Bird Fair, an assignment I received primarily because every other guide was busy. Despite having no particular love for Asian birding (the Neotropics are my preferred destination by a country mile), the location of the 7th Asian Bird Fair was attractive for other reasons. As a child, I had a predilection for digging holes in the backyard, my mother dubiously informing me on more than one occasion that if I dug deep enough I’d end up in China. I have been incrementally fascinated with China ever since. Yet with such limited interest in Asian birding, I didn’t even know what species I should be on the lookout for. Having agreed to a 40-hour flight schlep all the way to this region, I decided to add an extra week to my short itinerary – if not for the birds, then at least as a short rest from the arduous international flight plan. Atypically for someone whose bread and butter is operational logistics, I left it rather late to plan this extra week. A quick page through the field guide confirmed my expectations, that I should rather have been going to the Neotropics. Then I laid eyes on one particular species nearer the front of the book, a white head split by a narrow black band, body covered in golden scales, all adorned with the world’s longest tail feathers – reputedly up to 2.4 metres long! This was certainly worth seeing…

A week after arriving, I had bagged 4 species of crane (including more than 60 Siberian’s!), the very rare and sexy Scaly-sided Merganser, the brought-back-from-the-brink-of-extinction Crested Ibis, scores of beautiful Mandarin Duck and a host of other goodies. However, it was after having waited for over two hours to get my first glimpse of my aforementioned desire that I realised this was by far and away the best bird not only of the year, but possibly much longer. I sat transfixed (read finger on shutter release for much of the time) as this most prized and attractive individual gave us a full 20 minutes of uninterrupted viewing! A few days later I was to see further males, standing near the side of the road displaying through the fog to a bevvy of females. My bird of the year is none other than the Chinese endemic, Reeves’s Pheasant.

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Reeves’s Pheasant – Clayton Burne

 

Herero Chat – Cuan Rush

On a recent Namibian overland trip, I encountered excessively arid conditions, even for this destination, and virtually no birds were vocalising. This made birding rather challenging and for certain species such as Herero Chat, which is never easy to track down – I was concerned the group may struggle to get views of the bird. The usual cold and windy conditions prevailed during our descent of the spectacular Spreetshoogte Pass and the going was slow. However, our perseverance eventually paid off and I managed to locate a pair on the downslope. After watching the birds for a few minutes, one of them ventured out to the roadside, allowing nearby approach and, in turn, outstanding views! It is always great finding a highly sought-after species, especially when accompanied by such a clear sighting!

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Herero Chat – Dave Semler

 

Spotted Pardalote – Rich Lindie

My bird of the year is neither rare nor hard to find but certainly a looker, and full of spunk to boot. Indeed, it ousted several very rare birds that I saw this year so it must have something going for it!

Enjoying a cup of great coffee during a recent private trip to Royal National Park in New South Wales, Australia, we noticed some movement in a nearby pile of cut brush, just meters from our feet. Unable to find the movement at first, and not wanting to abandon our coffee for too long, we gave up the search after just a couple of minutes. Just a few moments later, however, more movement captured our attention, though this time one of us managed to glimpse where the critter had disappeared to – albeit to the underside of the brush! The culprit? None other than this gorgeous male Spotted Pardalote pictured here. We watched him for almost two hours as he repeatedly returned to the brush pile to collect nesting material, seemingly completely unperturbed by our presence, and often under the brush for a minute at a time, invisible to the greater world around it. At times, a potential threat – both human and otherwise – would approach too close to the nest (which was also just a few meters away), only to be chased off by this tiny but seriously brave little male or his mate. One of my favourite birds in the world, and the kind of enjoyable sighting that reminds us why birding is about a lot more than just the pursuit of the rare!

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Spotted Pardalote – Rich Lindie

 

Southern Ground Hornbill – Megan Taylor

2016 marks my first appearance on Rockjumper’s annual Bird of the Year series. Having only taken up birding last April, it has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride from initial interest to full-blown twitcher. This year has taken me across the length and breadth of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, encompassing one incredible destination after another. From the Okavango Delta, the dry woodlands and coastal deserts of Namibia, KwaZulu-Natal forests and grasslands to the immense Kruger National Park and stunningly attractive Western Cape, there was plenty of hardcore birding, copious large mammals, a stomach-turning pelagic and even a little time for wine tasting. Despite the numerous choices, my bird of the year is one that caused us many fruitless searches in KwaZulu-Natal. It was one of those birds that drew my attention in the field guide during the early days of my birding career, but ended up taking much longer to find than initially expected. The largest hornbill in the world, with piercing eyes, puffy red neck pouch, a lethal bill and purposeful strut – my bird of 2016 is the Southern Ground Hornbill.

Southern Ground Hornbill – Adam Riley

 

Fuertes’s Parrot – Trevor Ellery

My top bird of 2016 was the wonderful Fuertes’s Parrot that we saw on our Andean Endemics Tour in Colombia. The day had all the ingredients of an epic birding adventure. We woke up very early, drove up a bumpy road in the dark, watched the sun rise in a beautiful Andean valley framed by a snow topped mountain peak and an erupting volcano was a bonus, we then had to trek into an ethereal forest dripping with moss and epiphytes – and all this before we had even started looking for the bird! Then, of course, there was the uncertainty. We were looking for not just one of the world’s rarest parrots but also one of the world’s rarest birds, listed as ‘Critically Endangered’  by Birdlife, thought to number less than 250 individuals, and which had been lost for 91 years until it’s rediscovery in 2002. Fortunately, our early morning start was not to be in vain and after a short search, we soon located a small feeding flock! Though rather shy and furtive as they fed in the dense canopy, one particular individual decided to perch out in the open, not just for a few seconds but for ten minutes or more, allowing plenty of scope views, plenty of ooh’s and aah’s, and of course, plenty of pics. It was a truly magical experience as we stood there, gawping at this avian gem that made us feel like we had been transported to another world.

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Fuertes’s Parrot – Trevor Ellery

Nevado del Tolima Scenery – Trevor Ellery

 

Raggiana Bird-of-paradise – Wayne Jones

My top pick for 2016 is by no means the rarest or most sought-after member of its family, but it is probably the most iconic. Earlier this year I embarked on my maiden visit to enigmatic Papua New Guinea. One of our first activities was to visit a Raggiana Bird-of-paradise lek in Varirata National Park. Riotous squawking revealed that the lek was very active that morning, and soon we spotted flashes of strawberry-maroon as the birds hyperactively dashed through the forest canopy. In no time we all had good positions and watched as the raucous males displayed and worked themselves into a feathery frenzy every time a female happened upon the scene. I’ve seen pictures of birds-of-paradise since I was a kid; to finally see my first “proper” one (excluding brief glimpses of a Paradise Riflebird in Australia) was a moment I’ll never forget.

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Raggiana Bird-of-paradise – Markus Lilje

 

Long-tailed Ground Roller – Gareth Robbins

2016 was a great year for me as a guide working for Rockjumper. After completing several tours in South Africa, I found myself guiding Madagascar towards the latter part of the year, opening my eyes to a world of different birds to show my clients. One of the species favoured, not only by the clients but also by myself, was the Long-tailed Ground Roller. Surrounded by Octopus plants and Baobab trees in the Spiny Forests of Fiat, this great looking bird was seen well on all the Highlights tours. On one day in November, I took this photo of a ground roller jumping back and forth from the ground up into the tree, posing perfectly every time for all of us to see!

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Long-tailed Ground Roller – Gareth Robbins

 

Grasshopper Buzzard – Andre Bernon

December 2016 had something great in store for me. I was leading a new tour that we had set up, to central Mozambique in the Zambezi River delta. The trip is primarily focused on finding gems such as African Pitta, East Coast Akola, White-chested Alethea, Lowland Tiny Greenbelt, Bohm’s Bee-eater and Black-headed Appals. This area is totally unexplored from a birding perspective and could surprise us with anything really. We really were surprised and lucky to find, the bird of the year for me and a 2nd record for the southern African sub-region, a Grasshopper Buzzard!

We rounded a small corner on the floodplain and a medium sized raptor was seen perched on the ground on a small termite mound. Initial views showed a bird with a small head, light underparts, pale eye, dark malar stripes and supercilium. The bird then took off in flight, briefly, and exposed a fantastic rich rufous coloured wing panel – Grasshopper Buzzard! This bird is virtually unknown to this part of the world and was obviously very lost. A second record for the southern African sub-region! We all enjoyed views as it continued to fly from mound to mound and often running on the ground with its wings spread in pursuit of its prey, locusts.

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Grasshopper Buzzard – Tina Routledge

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Mongolia: Top Six Birds http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/mongolia-top-six-birds http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/mongolia-top-six-birds#respond Mon, 31 Oct 2016 12:06:41 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=54709 Right between Russia and China, Mongolia, “the land of the eternal blue sky”, sits on a high plateau at an average altitude of 1500 meters. Far from any ocean or sea, it’s the second largest landlocked country in the world. Comprised by endless steppes, the spectacular Altai Mountains, and the vast Gobi Desert, it is…

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Right between Russia and China, Mongolia, “the land of the eternal blue sky”, sits on a high plateau at an average altitude of 1500 meters. Far from any ocean or sea, it’s the second largest landlocked country in the world. Comprised by endless steppes, the spectacular Altai Mountains, and the vast Gobi Desert, it is both remote and beautiful. And much remains as it did centuries ago. One feels time has stood still here, as nomadic horsemen ride the windswept plains and ancient Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish. Most famously, Mongolia is believed to be the resting place of Ghengis Khan, whose fearsome warriors put the country on the World map.

The vast open steppes of Mongolia provide amazing scenery. (Photo © Marius Coetzee)

The vast open steppes of Mongolia provide amazing scenery. (Photo © Marius Coetzee)

With its rich avifauna (see slideshow here), Mongolia is a sought-after destination for Westerners seeking a genuine avian adventure (triplist here). Spring happens fast, so our tour is timed to maximize our chance at seeing the special birds of Mongolia and to avoid the buggy season later in summer. Not to mention, our nice group size (max of 8) and great price provide excellent value for those interested in birding Mongolia.

Below Rockjumper guide David Erterius gives us his votes for his Top 6 birds of Mongolia.

Guide David Erterius's unbounded enthusiasm and superb field skills make for exceptionally tours.

Guide David Erterius possesses unbounded enthusiasm and superb field skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White-naped Crane Grus vipio

With a unique combination of pinkish legs and a dark grey-and-white striped neck, this majestic crane is listed as vulnerable, with a total world population estimated at only 4,900 – 6,500 individuals. Sadly, its numbers are in rapid decline, mainly owing to habitat loss in both the breeding and wintering grounds. White-naped Cranes breed in northeastern Mongolia, northeastern China, and adjacent areas of Russia, nesting in wetlands along lakes and river valleys in eastern Mongolia. Mongolia is the most accessible place in the world to see this lovely species on its breeding grounds.

White-naped Cranes drop in for a landing.

White-naped Cranes drop in for a landing.

 

Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus

About 90% of the entire world population of this species winters in northern Australia, but nothing compares to watching a male doing its peculiar wobbling Pterodroma-like display-flight over the endless wind-swept steppe of the vast Gobi desert. An elegant plover, with a white face, slender body, long legs and surpringly powerful flight, this bird’s breeding habits remain little-known where we see it in Mongolia.

The ghostly Oriental Plover has a fantastic breeding display we see while birding Mongolia.

The ghostly Oriental Plover has a fantastic breeding display.

 

Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus

Only just determined a valid species in 1971, this seldom seen gull was previously believed a race of Mediterranean Gull or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull and Pallas’s Gull (!). In recent years, we’ve learned more about it and breeding sites are now known from China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. A ”vulnerable” species, the Relict Gull requires specific water levels at the shallow saltwater lakes where it breeds. Nearly the entire population winters on estuarine mud flats and sandbars in a small area of northeast China with smaller numbers in South Korea, where their habitat is lost to reclamation projects and development. (Rockjumper, through the Rockjumper Bird Conservation Fund, is proud to support Birds Korea in their work monitoring the birdlife in this sensitive region).

Relict Gull is one of the harder gull species to see in the world, and the breed in Mongolia.

Relict Gull is one of the harder gull species to see in the world, and it nests in Mongolia.

Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni

One of four species of Ground Jay from Central and East Asia, a group occupying space within the Corvidae family (crows, ravens, jay, etc.), this species is resident in Mongolia, adjacent parts of China and small parts of Kazakhstan. Still little known, with few nests ever found and a poorly understood vocal repertoire, it is typically found in singles or pairs amid desolate barren ground with small scattered scrubs. Their specialized long, curved, strong bill is adapted to digging and probing in the ground for beetles and other similar sized prey items. Certainly, this jay ranks chief among the great birds of Mongolia.

 

White-throated Bush Chat Saxicola insignis

Another poorly known bird, this once common chat is today in steep decline due to loss of its wintering grassland habitat. Threatened by drainage, conversion to agriculture, overgrazing, flooding, and thatch harvesting, it breeds very locally in the mountains of Mongolia and adjacent Russia, wintering in the terai of northern India and Nepal. A large chat, adult males exhibit a striking blackish hood, which contrasts with a white throat, and it has white primary coverts and a rufous-orange breast.

 

Koslov’s Accentor Prunella koslowi

While rather plain and nondescript at first glance, this poorly known species is a near-endemic, occurring only within the thin scrub of the semi-deserts and dry mountains of west, central and southern Mongolia and adjacent China. Also known as Mongolian Accentor, this bird is in Prunellidae, the only bird family endemic to the Palearctic. Indeed this accentor is always a great find when birding Mongolia.

Kozlov's Accentor is a major target bird for birders in Mongolia.

Kozlov’s Accentor is a major target bird for birders in Mongolia.

 

Our 2017 tour to Mongolia from May 22 – June 10th will see us crossing rivers and valleys, camping in the desert, and traveling high into the mountains, experiencing fantastic landscapes all along the way. If you own a pioneering spirit and a desire to travel where few have been before, guide David Erterius is ready to share with you his favorite birds on this thrilling adventure. Join David in spring of 2017 to go birding in Mongolia! There is no better way to see the country.

The scenery in Mongolia is stunning, with beautiful landscapes, at times as far as the eye can see. Oryx Photography Expeditions guide Marius Coatzee captured this image on our Mongolia Photo Tour.

The scenery in Mongolia is stunning, with beautiful landscapes, at times as far as the eye can see. Oryx Photography Expeditions guide Marius Coatzee captured this image on our Mongolia Photo Tour.

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Cuba – Birding the Greater Antilles http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/cuba-birding-greater-antilles http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/cuba-birding-greater-antilles#respond Mon, 31 Oct 2016 11:27:05 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=54688 Cuba – Birding the Greater Antilles Clayton Burne I have had the great privilege of visiting all of the Greater Antilles on a number of occasions, but some of my best experiences have come in Cuba. Aside from the diverse birding opportunities, Cuba was a living history – a country trapped in a time bubble…

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Cuba – Birding the Greater Antilles
Clayton Burne

Hotel Nacional, Havana

Hotel Nacional, Havana. © Clayton Burne

I have had the great privilege of visiting all of the Greater Antilles on a number of occasions, but some of my best experiences have come in Cuba. Aside from the diverse birding opportunities, Cuba was a living history – a country trapped in a time bubble set in the 1950’s. However, this will not last for much longer, and Cuba should be visited sooner rather than later. Not due to any imminent loss of species or habitat – for Cuba has been an excellent custodian of its environment, no, because the essence of Cuba is irrevocably changing, and quickly. In as little as six years I have watched Cuba’s 1950’s automobiles diminish from the de facto form of transport to a mere sideline of tourist interest. Hotels are being erected at break-neck speed to host the impending tourism avalanche. The capacity to be the first foreigner to visit out of the way towns and villages is gone. Soon, Cuba will be just another Caribbean island, practically inseparable from the rest. The legacies of Jose Marti, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the brothers Castro quickly eroded by mass commercialism.

Jose Marti statue, Havana © Clayton Burne

Jose Marti statue, Havana © Clayton Burne

For as long as most of us have been alive, Cuba has been a tantalising but unreachable destination. When Cuba discovered the allure of tourism dollars at the turn of the century, the world descended upon this emerald jewel in the azure Caribbean Sea – except of course if you happened to be from the United States. Barring a small number of brave individuals who defied US law, most US citizens have had to sit and watch as this island state only 90 miles away remained resolutely off limits to them. Branded a pariah state and a sponsor or terrorism, this small nation paid a severe price for refusing to kowtow to the US interests. Successfully defeating the US backed interventionists at the Bay of Pigs was one thing, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis was quite another. Frosty relations became set in an ice age of mutual distrust that has taken over 50 years to even begin thawing.

El Capitolio, Havana © Clayton Burne

El Capitolio, Havana © Clayton Burne

 

The recent easing of sanctions has offered many US citizens the opportunity to engage with Cubans for the first time in their lives. It has been my experience at least, that despite generations of political animosity – the Cuban people are an incredibly warm and friendly nation, for whom historical grudges have no bearing. So just what can one expect after arriving at Jose Marti International Airport, Havana?

Che Memorial, Santa Clara © Clayton Burne

Che Memorial, Santa Clara © Clayton Burne

 

Downtown Havana is remarkably open, with little in the way of traffic, but heavy on historic buildings, landmarks and plazas. If you only have a short time to see the city, I’d recommend starting in La Habana Vieja and take in the four main plazas – Catedral, Armas, Vieja and San Francisco. Having wondered these historic squares, many replete with images before and after restoration, head over to Parque Central. Here the magnificent El Capitolio building over shadows a leafy square and a marble bust of Jose Marti. The historical seat of Cuba’s National Assembly before 1959, the building has been little more than a museum for the last 5 decades. Renovations work begun in 2013 will see Cuba’s National Assembly return in the near future.

Museo de la Revolución, Havana © Clayton Burne

Museo de la Revolución, Havana © Clayton Burne

Of significant interest to history and art buffs, the Museo de la Revolución could take up the better part of one’s day. Formerly the Presidential Palace until the Cuban Revolution, the museum now houses a large number of important artefacts mostly dating from the Cuban Revolution to the present day. Treasures include the Granma, the boat that took the Castros and their revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba, Che Guevara’s radio transmitter, Fulgencio Batista’s gold telephone and Arnaldo Mendez’s space suit.

As the afternoon cools down, take a stroll along the Malecón (known locally as the ‘big sofa’ as many locals while away the early evening sitting and talking on the concrete berm). Finally, enjoy a relaxing 20-minute walk along the coast to reach the Hotel Nacional. Host over the years to the likes of Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Bashir al Assad, Hugo Chavez, Meyer Lansky and Al Capone – this hotel even has it’s own nuclear bunker. End your day watching the sun dip over the Caribbean Sea with a mojito, or the quintessential Cuba Libre.

While traversing the Cuban capital, it is worth keeping an eye out for the endemic Cuban Blackbird, endemic sub-species of Red-legged Thrush as well as a number of migratory North American warblers.

1950 America Auto, Havana © Clayton Burne

1950 America Auto, Havana © Clayton Burne

 

During our tour, we cover a number of interesting historical and cultural sites in search of birds. One of our first stops is Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. Entirely logged and cleared for charcoal and then tea and coffee cultivation, it was a mere 45 years ago that the eroded landscape was terraced and reforested with more than eight million trees – planted and grown hand, tree by tree.

Moving further westwards into Pinar del Rio province, we visit Cueva de los Portales. This series of eroded limestone caves are now a national monument, and were used as a base by Comandante Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his Western Army during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The original ash block room is still present, replete with bed and chessboard where Che whiled away the hours.

cave-cub-cuevas-de-las-portales

Cuevas de las Portales, Pino del Rio © Clayton Burne

Leaving western Cuba behind, we head back to Havana before turning south to the Zapata Swamp, home of close to 80% of Cuba’s endemic bird species. The drive is relatively mundane for the most part until we reach Australia – a small town just before reaching the northern end of the Zapata Swamp, certainly not the country! Large signs commemorate the Cuban victory at the popularly named Bay of Pigs (known in Cuba as the Batalla de Girón), where a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group of roughly 1400 paramilitaries was defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary forces within three days! As you depart Australia and drive the remaining 30km’s to Playa Larga, even the most non-militaristic observer would wonder at the logic involved in having such an invading force attempt to march up a thin strip of land such as this. It will become patently apparent over the next few days that the Zapata Swamp is no place for marching – with endless sawgrass and deep channels home to Cuban Crocodiles. Alongside the road, numerous concrete memorials stand testament to the 176 Cuban soldiers killed in action. Much further down the road from Playa Larga is Playa Giron, the landing beach after which the Cubans named the battle. Here a small museum further commemorates the battle with a small number of aircraft and tanks stationed outside, a useful place to grab an ice-cream across the road.

Playa Giron museum, Playa Giron © Clayton Burne

Playa Giron museum, Playa Giron © Clayton Burne

 

En route to Najasa, we take some time to explore the central Cuban city of Santa Clara. The city is famous for being the final battle of the Cuban Revolution and consequently the burial site of Comandante Che Guevara. Despite being almost 300km away from Havana, the battle that ended in the afternoon of the 31st of December 1958 saw incumbent dictator Fulgencio Batista flee the country within in 12 hours. At dawn on the 1st of January 1959, Cuba had not just a new leader – but a completely new direction.

Our final stop on the tour is the northern central province of Ciego de Ávila Province and the Garden of Kings (Jardines del Rey). The islands played a central role in Ernest Hemingway’s famous novels, The old Man and the Sea for which he won a Pulitzer Price and Islands in the Stream. Statues of Hemingway replete with a fishing rod and pipe occupy both sides of the causeway between Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. Departing the mainland, we traverse a 27km long dual carriage causeway, nothing but a thin line through the Bahia de Perros (Bay of Dogs) and into the horizon. While providing a magnificent view, the causeway initially caused salinity issues in the bay due to a lack of water flow. Consequently, a number of large pipes and bridges were installed to allow for better tidal flow.

The mercenaries made it to here, Zapata © Clayton Burne

The mercenaries made it to here, Zapata © Clayton Burne

 

Our prime reason for being in Cuba are the birds of course, and while there are relatively few species of interest in Havana itself, one should keep an eye open while scouting the city. So, what exactly are we here to see? Aside from the masses of attractive migrant North America warblers, our primary focus is aimed at Cuban Endemics and Greater Antillean specialities.

Cuba has 28 endemics, 1 breeding endemic and roughly 12 Near Endemics / Greater Antillean specialities of interest to us. Of the endemics, Cuban Kite and Zapata Rail are impractical, while a host of others are either rare or very localised. Of the remaining 26 endemics, we have an excellent record of finding almost all of them on every tour, along with all 12 of the near endemics.

Full details on all endemics, as well as tour statistics and species images will be posted here shortly.

Fidel, Che, Raul - Military Base near Jovellanos © Clayton Burne

Fidel, Che, Raul – Military Base near Jovellanos © Clayton Burne

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Birding Arabia: Deserts and Oases http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/birding-arabia-deserts-and-oases http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/10/31/birding-arabia-deserts-and-oases#respond Mon, 31 Oct 2016 11:00:03 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=54676 The Middle East, so rich in history, holds magnificent allure for its past but also great curiosity in its present and future. If you watch the news then you’re aware that certain spots are deemed unstable, but one part that is stable and also provides magnificent birding is the southeastern Arabian Peninsula. Oman and the…

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Long and lanky, the Greater Hoopoe-Lark has a wonderful set of piping whistles in its song. It is one of many dapper desert birds possible on our UAE & Oman: Arabian Birding Adventure. Click on the pic for more info!

Long and lanky, the Greater Hoopoe-Lark has a wonderful set of piping whistles in its song. It is one of many dapper desert birds possible on our UAE & Oman: Arabian Birding Adventure. Click on the pic for more info! (Photo by Adam Riley)

The Middle East, so rich in history, holds magnificent allure for its past but also great curiosity in its present and future. If you watch the news then you’re aware that certain spots are deemed unstable, but one part that is stable and also provides magnificent birding is the southeastern Arabian Peninsula. Oman and the UAE are popular among tourists, and fascinating places, easily explored, and chock full of birds, which is why we’ve run trips there for years now. A few spots remain for our 2016 Arabian Birding Adventure departing this November. (Check out the full itinerary here).

Arabian Partridges occur in small groups, and like rocky hillsides near springs. (Photo by Forrest Rowland)

Arabian Partridges occur in small groups, and like rocky hillsides near springs. (Photo by Forrest Rowland)

If you like vast open space, then nothing rivals the Rub’ al Khali, also known as the “Empty Quarter”. This is the largest sand desert (erg) in the world (larger than France), and its eastern edge penetrates Oman’s western border, and there at its fringes one finds a surprising array of birds. Greater Hoopoe-Larks, nervous and gawky, sing their somber set of piping whistles as they scurry along the sand, and then startle observers as they burst into flight with a bright flash of black and white in the wings. Any scant bit of vegetation may harbor birds, and we’ve timed our tour in November, when migrants are on the move and looking for cover. Desert oases birding is thrilling, and various springs, or “ayns” as they are known in Arabia, concentrate birds too and with luck we often see the scarce Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak, some elegantly marked Arabian Partridges, and the colorful and camouflage Bruce’s Green Pigeon. While all the showy desert birds are the standout stars of our UAE & Oman: Arabian Birding Adventure, we always enjoy a great raptor show as well. An impressive constellation of birds of prey are possible, and in some places they occur in high densities. And there are also spots where shorebirds congregate in huge numbers. At Barr Al Hikman millions (!) of shorebirds gather, including thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits, hundreds of Great Knots, and gorgeous Crab Plovers to boot.

Jabal Hafeet in the UAE is a good place for several species, like Hooded Wheatear, and also Egyptian Vulture. Arabia is a wonderful place to see a variety of large raptors, including Imperial Eagle, Lappet-faced Vulture and more. (Photo by Forrest Rowland)

Jabal Hafeet in the UAE is a good place for several species, like Hooded Wheatear, and also Egyptian Vulture (pictured). Arabia is a wonderful place to see a variety of large raptors, including Imperial Eagle, Lappet-faced Vulture and more. (Photo by Forrest Rowland)

Oman is a wonderful playground for birders, and while both countries provide great birding, the contrasts between Oman and the UAE could not be more striking. Bustling Dubai with its Vegas-like atmosphere, feels so very new and a little strange honestly. What started out as a modest fishing settlement in the 1800s is now a major post for free trade with a crazy skyline (incl. the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) and a crazier network of roads and shopping malls (the Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest). A byproduct of all the development, is that Dubai boasts a good bunch of golf courses and parks that attract a great variety of birds (warblers, pipits, wagtails, etc.). Indeed, we eat well and have good accommodation in Dubai, and not far outside of town there are escarpments and other desert features that host wheatears, larks, and even Pharoah Eagle-Owl.

A few spots remain for our 2016 departure this November. Check out the full itinerary here.

Join veteran Rockjumper guides Keith Valentine and Mark Beevers for a thrilling birding adventure!

Gray Hypocolius is the lone representative of the bird family, Hypocoliidae. Breeding only in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, it is a hard bird to connect with, yet being monotypic it is highly sought after by those wishing to see a rep. from each bird family. (Photo by Adam Riley)

Gray Hypocolius is the lone representative of the bird family, Hypocoliidae. Breeding only in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, it is a hard bird to connect with, yet being monotypic it is highly sought after by those wishing to see a rep. from each bird family. A few winter in the UAE and Oman every year. (Photo by Adam Riley)

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Meet McCaw – Our North Island Brown Kiwi http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/27/meet-mccaw-north-island-brown-kiwi http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/27/meet-mccaw-north-island-brown-kiwi#respond Mon, 27 Jun 2016 12:49:05 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=28547 Erik Forsyth, our New Zealand-based guide, lives right on the doorstep of a reserve that protects about 200 North Island Brown Kiwis. Having a keen interest in global species and habitat protection, as well as the kiwi being the special species that it is, we, therefore, decided to sponsor some of the work being done…

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Erik Forsyth, our New Zealand-based guide, lives right on the doorstep of a reserve that protects about 200 North Island Brown Kiwis. Having a keen interest in global species and habitat protection, as well as the kiwi being the special species that it is, we, therefore, decided to sponsor some of the work being done by the Whakatane Kiwi Trust.

north island brown kiwi

Photo credit: Neil Hutton

 

Meet McCaw (named after an All Black Rugby player by a forestry crew who were logging in the area), a young North Island Brown Kiwi that resides in the reserve where the Whakatane Kiwi Trust is doing some incredible work. He is one of the kiwis that we have personally sponsored with a radio transmitter collar for research, a brand new addition to our conservation trust. We are looking forward to working closely with the Whakatane Kiwi Trust to try and improve the birds’ habitat and understand these birds in even more detail.

north island brown kiwi

Photo credit: Neil Hutton

 

Erik arrived at 10:00am at conservation officers Greg and Michelle’s house one clear, blue-skyed, winter day. After a pot of tea and croissants, they loaded up and headed out on gravel roads through planted forestry and over several streams. After opening and closing six sheep gates, they arrived at their location at Wainui in the Bay of Plenty.

north island brown kiwi

Photo credit: Neil Hutton

 

The habitat was a steep-sided valley covered in ferns, scrub and a few exotics, not the kind of habitat in which you would expect a kiwi to be living! After pointing the aerial transmitter in several directions, a “pinging” was located from the old transmitter on McCaw. The team left the road and crossed through dense grass and fallen trees. After a further 10 minutes, they headed downslope following a deer path, where the “pinging” on the aerial transmitter grew stronger. Some of the team members then moved in closer and after a bit of searching in difficult terrain, they could see the North Island Brown Kiwi hiding in dense vegetation. A quick grab of the legs and McCaw was caught. After replacing the transmitter with a new one, measurements and weight were taken. After all the necessary details were done, McCaw, our North Island Brown Kiwi, was released back to his hiding spot, where he rushed off noisily into the scrubby vegetation.

north island brown kiwi

Photo credit: Neil Hutton

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Bird Tour Essentials – Packing for Your Trip by Wayne Jones http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/14/bird-tour-essentials-packing-trip-wayne-jones http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/14/bird-tour-essentials-packing-trip-wayne-jones#respond Tue, 14 Jun 2016 06:48:30 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=28392 Over the last few years of intense travel I’ve learned a few things, both from my own experiences and from those of other travelers. Most of this is common sense but I hope at least one or two items will be of use. Birding tours usually operate in countries with limited access to a wide…

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Over the last few years of intense travel I’ve learned a few things, both from my own experiences and from those of other travelers. Most of this is common sense but I hope at least one or two items will be of use. Birding tours usually operate in countries with limited access to a wide range of supplies. Even in developed countries, you will often be far from adequate shops and facilities, so having some of these things handy can make your life a lot easier.

 

OPTICS
Binoculars: It might be obvious, but there’s no harm in mentioning. More than anything, remember to pack your binoculars! Some people even prefer to bring a small back-up pair in case their main binoculars are damaged or misplaced. There is no greater way to put a damper on your tour than to be without optics to see the birds.

Zeiss Victory-SF 10x42 Binocukars © www.zeiss.com

Zeiss Victory-SF 10×42 Binocukars © www.zeiss.com

Scope: Your guide will always have a scope with him/her, but if you have one and have the space to bring it, consider doing so. Except on trips like our Kenya & Tanzania tour, where vehicle luggage space is very limited, multiple scopes can be very helpful.

Camera: Unless you’re really keen on photography a superzoom/bridge camera is the perfect blend of weight, portability and capability. Photographing birds in flight or in low light situations might prove tricky, but a superzoom will likely satisfy 90% of your expectations.

 

ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT
Flashlight: A powerful yet compact flashlight/torch such as those offered by Fenix and LED Lenser will often come in handy. Headlamps are useful for doing checklists in dimly lit situations.

iPad/tablet: Unless you’re wanting to do sensitive photo editing/manipulation while on tour, a tablet makes the most sense. It’s lighter and more compact than a laptop and can double up as a reader, both for novels and electronic field guides. Plus, if charged, it can be used to recharge your USB items while on the go.

Chargers & cables: For your camera, cellphone, laptop, iPad/tablet, Kindle/reader, mp3 player and rechargeable batteries.

Universal adaptor: In addition to this, a small multi-plug adaptor will prove useful if you have multiple devices to charge.

Universal adaptor © www.mt-gifts.com

Universal adaptor © www.mt-gifts.com


Noise-cancelling headphones/earphones:
These are indispensable if you want to enjoy movies and music during flights. The earphones are my choice in terms of portability.

 

CLOTHING
As far as clothes go, bear in mind the following: light-weight, layers, long-sleeves and versatility.

 

A FEW HEALTH-RELATED KNICK-KNACKS
Along with the usual items like your general toiletries, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, anti-dehydration powders, diarrhea medication and mosquito repellant consider the following:

Cold & flu/hayfever medication: The last thing you want is to be coming down with a cold out in the wilderness and far from any pharmacy. Nip it in the bud and enjoy the holiday you’ve saved up for!

Tonic/energy booster: Some days can be physically demanding. A pack of effervescent vitamin and energy boosters or sachets of tonic might be just the thing to put you back on your game during the tour.

Cough drops/lozenges: Dusty dirt roads always lead to the best birding spots. They also often lead to coughs. Keep a good supply of lozenges on hand.

Cough drops © www.samsclub.com

Cough drops © www.samsclub.com


Buff or bandana:
Keeping the dust out in the first place is a good way to prevent a cough. A surgical mask (á la walking through the streets of Beijing) will be most effective, but a bandana or a multi-purpose buff will do the job almost as well and with a touch more style!

Rubbing alcohol pads: I’ve recently heard that sniffing rubbing alcohol for a short period can help assuage motion sickness. I can’t testify to its efficacy, but if you suffer from motion sickness it might be worth asking your doctor’s opinion on this. Bird tours involve a lot of travelling in buses and the occasional boat ride too.

 

ODDS ‘n’ ENDS
A few cable ties (tie wraps/zip ties): Useful in a multitude of situations.

Cable ties © www.cabletiemanufacturers.com

Cable ties © www.cabletiemanufacturers.com

Duct tape and masking tape.

A pair of extra shoelaces: multipurpose!

Super glue: helpful in medical situations as well, such as in lieu of stitches or repairing broken nails. Just ensure the tube cannot get squashed or leak in your bag!

A carabiner or two.

Multi-purpose tool, e.g. a Leatherman.

A black garbage bag and a couple of large zip-lock bags: you never know when you might need to waterproof something or need a makeshift laundry bag.

 

AND LASTLY…
If, like me, you’re a fan of good coffee, the bad news is that good coffee is not a universal prospect. For true coffeeholics an Aeropress is a great solution. It’s very lightweight, durable, nearly unbreakable, quick ‘n’ easy to clean, and it makes a single cup of great coffee in under a minute. Just don’t forget to pack a bag of your favorite grounds.

Aeropress © www.aeropress.com

Aeropress © www.aeropress.com

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“How I got my bogey bird” – by Forrest Rowland http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/08/bogey-bird-forrest-rowland http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/08/bogey-bird-forrest-rowland#respond Wed, 08 Jun 2016 06:37:27 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=28296 During the course of one’s birding career, passion, or hobby, specific desires and goals arise. A desire to visit this park. A desire to see that country. A desire to see some particular bird. While the majority of those desires are achieved with (one can hope) relatively little resistance, there is always “The One”. The…

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During the course of one’s birding career, passion, or hobby, specific desires and goals arise. A desire to visit this park. A desire to see that country. A desire to see some particular bird. While the majority of those desires are achieved with (one can hope) relatively little resistance, there is always “The One”. The One that got away. For birders, it’s the Bogey Bird, also referred to as the Nemesis Bird.

Nemesis birds aren’t those critters that were nearly missed on the first attempt, or simply proved to require more effort than anticipated. Rather, Nemesis birds are those that, time after time, attempt after attempt, utterly refuse to yield to any will, or effort, you can muster. To gain true bogey status the species must be seen by your peers, your birding buddies; in my case, even non-birding relatives! Practically everyone to whom you complain about this enigmatic, elusive, seemingly non-existent species that you fail to observe has not only seen it…No! They have photographed it, been defecated on by it, and even had it over for afternoon tea. Yet you, despite all your experience, desire, and frustration with the Gods, who are apparently affecting a personal vendetta against you, sit at home with your field guides, birding guides, eBird alerts, and .pdf Trip Reports (each and all of which detail in excruciating agony the fabulous views their party managed) with not even a whiff, a glimpse, nor a witty anecdote to contribute. You are beyond witty anecdotes. You are dumbfounded. Such is the Nemesis Bird.

My bogey bird, my nemesis, was the Gyrfalcon. On a very wintry day on the bleak Llano Estacado plain of northern Texas, Gyrfalcon entered my mind. Because it is the largest falcon on Earth, and the only all white one (!!), as a young birder I became keenly interested to see this bird. It was during a Varied Thrush chase (twitch for my Texas list), I heard that one had appeared on a water tower very near to our location. At this point in my life, I had never been north of Nebraska, USA. This translates to me never actually having a real chance of encountering this impressive Arctic denizen, and therefore forcing it out of my mind. All of a sudden, it was possible!

We dipped. We drove 200 miles. Stopped once for gas and snacks. We waited for 5 hours. We checked into a motel room 30 miles away. We drove back the following morning. We waited for 8 hours. We skipped lunch. Finally, heads down, we began the 6-hour drive home. This was the first time in my life of birding that I felt dejected, and wish I had never had the silly notion of a Gyrfalcon. Much to my dismay, the bird in question showed up 20 minutes after we drove off. It stayed four days. I drove back up to look for it the following weekend. It was never seen again.

I awoke one morning in Copenhagen, several years later, with high hopes of seeing a Gyrfalcon in not one, but TWO different countries in one day!!! We started out early for the beaches of Moen Island, Denmark, where we heard it had been passing some time, chasing gulls. The Gyrfalcon we were stalking flew across the channel often, to terrorize gulls and waterfowl in Sweden, spending time hunting in both Denmark and Sweden daily. Numerous sightings of this “Snow White” were had by hundreds of birders on either side of the channel. Things were looking up!

3 days later, 3 return ferry trips (both ways = 6 times on the ferry) later, 7 partially eaten gulls and ducks (with no sign of the predator responsible for the gore), and 1 slightly annoyed significant other who was sincerely hoping I’d be spending more time with her (rather than staring down every beach in Southern Sweden longingly) and a realization slowly befell my cloudy, brooding mind: I had finally met my Nemesis.

3 years later and I was headed to the Bering Sea. Given Gyrfalcon’s dexterity at sea, I reckoned one would certainly show up. I was going to be living on an Aleut Island for 4 months. How could I miss it? And I saw some birds on that wonderful island. Lesser Sand-Plover, Long-toed, Temminck’s and Little Stints, Jack Snipe, Ross’s Gull, Common House Martin, Pacific Swift, Gray-streaked and Siberian Flycatchers, Siberian Rubythroat, Taiga Flycatcher, the parade of rare vagrants blown in from Asia was astounding!!! However, not a single Gyrfalcon appeared on St Paul Island. Granted, there was a gray morph Gyrfalcon not 16 miles away on neighbouring St George Island that stayed there for two weeks, during the worst of the Spring’s weather. I suppose the puffins taste better on that island than on St Paul. I received several photos of that bird, from a colleague working on St George. They were practically selfies with the bird. As I scrolled painfully through the photos I thought to myself that I would, heretofore, strike Gyrfalcon from my mind.

Montana is now my home, and it is gorgeous. Summers are especially attractive, with 80F daily temps in stunning glaciated mountains carved by crystalline alpine streams. The winter, however, is difficult. We like it that way – keeps the riffraff away. Bohemian Waxwings group in impressive numbers (topping 1000 in a flock, on occasion!), Great Gray Owls come down into the flats, and rosy-finches of all sorts come to visit feeders. Overall, though, winter can be long, and leave a birder feeling a bit thin. So it was, sometime in early 2012, that I found myself passing a cold winter’s day looking for Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. Mixed flocks of these, mingled with Horned Larks, are great fun to watch. The swirling masses move about in what seems a melee one moment, only to congeal in perfect harmony the next. At one point I was about to depress the shutter button on a gorgeous, extremely obliging Snow Bunting, when the whole flock exploded up in a blinding swirl. Several expletives came to mind, as I had just spent the better part of an hour failing utterly to capture either a longspur or a bunting in a pose resembling anything other than mangy and/or discombobulated. A dark streak bulleted through my periphery. A Cottontail Rabbit bolted. The two met at a point on the ground just beyond a parked, covered Harvester. No Peregrine I’m familiar with would ever go after a rabbit. They prefer waterfowl. It could’ve been a Prairie Falcon, of course, but this bird seemed dark, and large. Too fast and sleek for a Red-tailed Hawk. I ran up the road to get a view beyond the Harvester.

Over the course of the next 3 minutes I watched a gorgeous BIG female Gyrfalcon slay the rabbit, fly over to a nearby fencepost with it, and devour it. Years of effort, water tower vigils, freezing ferry rides in distant countries, and blustery Bering Sea Islands were instantly and thoroughly forgotten. As the Gyr devoured the Cottontail with her beak, I was devouring the Gyr with my eyes. Soaking up the heft and bulk of this majestic beauty, it was not until a pair of ravens came in to harass and flush the Gyr that I realized I had also forgotten the camera hanging from my neck. I stood there for a good thirty minutes, wishing the Gyrfalcon back. The snow started up, wind kicked in, and I finally surrendered a smile to serendipity. A curse was lifted. More than that, I felt that familiar kinship with nature and the Earth that I feel when, without forethought or planning, I am blessed with such an exquisite encounter.

The Gyrfalcon seemed oblivious to my presence. It was definitely too involved in eating to acknowledge my elation. But, as it so often happens, this individual apparently spread the word that the weirdo in the White SUV braving Montana blizzards for crummy photos is, in fact, OK. Every winter since that one, I’ve seen a Gyrfalcon in Montana. Sometimes I travel farther afield to see one, while other times I’m back home before brunch. Every time I see one I remember: there was a life before Gyrfalcon, and it was fine. But life post-Gyr is certainly a bit rosier.

Gyr Falcon

 

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5 Reasons To Visit The Forgotten Islands [#5: Rare and Endemic Species] http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/01/rare-and-endemic-species http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/2016/06/01/rare-and-endemic-species#respond Wed, 01 Jun 2016 11:54:29 +0000 http://www.rockjumperbirding.com/?p=28026 In light of our upcoming New Zealand Subantarctic Island Cruise, we decided to provide 5 great reasons to visit the #ForgottenIslands! Here is our last, and certainly not least… #5: Rare and Endemic Species Finally, the thing you have all been waiting for! Besides the many other fantastic reasons to visit the Subantarctic Islands, as birders, our highest…

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In light of our upcoming New Zealand Subantarctic Island Cruise, we decided to provide 5 great reasons to visit the #ForgottenIslands! Here is our last, and certainly not least…

#5: Rare and Endemic Species

Finally, the thing you have all been waiting for! Besides the many other fantastic reasons to visit the Subantarctic Islands, as birders, our highest priority will always be the birds! You’ll be delighted to know that travelling halfway around the world will not be in vain as there is ample opportunity to enjoy some fantastic birds and wildlife. This remarkable New Zealand Subantarctic Island cruise offers close proximity to a number of species and with it plenty of photographic opportunities.

When it comes to special birds, sightings you can look forward to include: Auckland & Campbell Teals; Yellow-eyed & Snares Penguins; and Buller’s, Gray-headed, White-capped, Salvin’s, Black-browed, Light-mantled, Royal & Wandering Albatrosses.

Top mammals that can also be found in the area include: New Zealand Sea Lion; New Zealand Fur Seal; Dusky Dolphin; Bryde’s Whale; and the impressive Killer Whale!

Being afforded the opportunity to experience the litany of species on this tour – in their natural habitats – is guaranteed to spark an overwhelming appreciation for this astounding area. Taking the time to fully soak up our surroundings and all they have to offer is exactly what makes this cruise so special.

We hope to see you there!

To find out more about this amazing birding tour, click here.

<<See reason #4

 

 

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