LEV FRID – WILSON’S BIRD-OF-PARADISE
It is difficult to choose just one favorite bird from an entire year of amazing highlights, but one that sticks out for me was Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise. While on the Remote West Papuan Islands cruise in Indonesia, we departed our liveaboard to reach Waigeo Island well before dawn, and made our way to the blinds under the cloak of darkness. We heard the bird before we could see him; his loud, emphatic whistles echoing across the forest. Suddenly, he appeared right in front of us! Despite the still dim light, we could make out his brilliant blue, featherless head, his blood-red back and iridescent tail streamers. Over the course of the next two hours, we watched him display to females, clean his court, and sing, as if we were in the middle of a documentary. It wasn’t a surprise that this species is often named the “best bird in the world”. My favorite part was observing the young males perched nearby, intently watching the adult as he displayed to the female using a variety of complex display movements, flaring his beaming green breast shield, and opening his mouth to expose the bright green mouth lining. Evidently, it takes a lot of time and practice to learn the moves!
Golden Pipit by Adam Riley
ADAM RILEY – GOLDEN PIPIT
Its always a thrill finding a rarity or vagrant, especially if it’s a striking bird, and this absolutely stands true for Adam’s bird of the year, the Golden Pipit. Not only was this the 21st Southern African record of this sought-after East African species, but it was found in the dying minutes of the Kruger Bird & Wildlife Challenge. What this meant is that within an hour over 100 birders participating or assisting with the challenge were able to watch and enjoy this remarkable bird, a fairy-tale ending to a wonderful event. This bird race, conceptualised by Rockjumper and set up in tandem with BirdLife South Africa, ended up raising $30,000 towards the conservation of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. The concept was to run a fun challenge covering Kruger National Park from top to bottom, with teams trying to see as many bird and mammal species as possible. Kruger National Park was at its very best after good rains; everywhere except the far north, was lush and green. Migrants abounded and there were birds and mammals seemingly everywhere. Some teams recorded up to 200 birds on some days, as well as brilliant mammal sightings. In total, 379 bird species were recorded. The winning team was BirdLife International, captained by Adam Riley, and they recorded 328 bird and 45 mammal species.
In Adam’s words: the absolute highlight for us happened less than 2 hours before the cut-off of the challenge, when our team was scouring for the last few additions to our list. We were 10km from Mopani camp, where every team was gathering for the final banqueting dinner, when Andrew Dobson spotted a bird and asked us to back up. Andrew’s bird had vanished so I spished and my eyes picked up a yellow flash. I knew immediately what it was, a Golden Pipit! This is a nomadic East African species, which is one of the most sought-after vagrants to Southern Africa, this individual being the 21st Southern African record. What a high to find the greatest rarity of the challenge at the end of the event! There was still enough time for all the other teams to get to us, so we immediately sent out word. So the absolute cherry on top for us was that the pipit stayed, and all 8 teams as well as all the volunteers who assisted with the Kruger challenge got to see this bird. We couldn’t have imagined a better ending to a really fun event.
Japanese Night Heron by Ben Werne
ADAM WALLEYN – JAPANESE NIGHT HERON
2019 has been one of my busiest years ever and the list of highlights is long. There is no question, however, about which ranks as my number one. During our inaugural Japan Spring tour this past May, we had a wonderful trip and a clear highlight was our visit to Amami Island. Here we spent a couple of extremely enjoyable days seeing all of the endemics and some unexpected surprises, all on a stunningly beautiful island. On our second night on Amami, we were wrapping up an incredibly productive night drive, and were heading for the hotel really happy with the evening’s results, when I noticed a big lump in a tree over the road. I was still spotlighting out the window as we drove back. It was late, and we were all tired, but I figured it was worth a second look, so we backed up and realized it was a night heron. Fully expecting it to be a young Black-crowned Night Heron, we were absolutely floored to realize it was a Japanese Night Heron! This sighting was just so unexpected, as there seem to be no records of this species on Amami for this time of year, and while it is an endemic breeder to Japan, it is so secretive and poorly-known that it is simply not even on the radar of a birding tour there. And for me, personally, it was incredibly satisfying to see this bird having had agonizingly near misses with seeing it in three different countries over the years.
Racket-tailed Roller by Clayton Burne
CLAYTON BURNE – RACKET-TAILED ROLLER
Meg, Kaily and I headed off to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe earlier this year to scour the Caprivi for several tricky and scarce species to be found within the borders of southern Africa. Birding in this woodland is akin to that of the miombo woodlands of central Africa, where low densities are offset by great diversity in mixed bird parties – you just need to find them.
Having driven most of the Caprivi strip, we arrived in the town of Katima Mulilo, still short of a few target species. We soon had fantastic views of Schalow’s Turaco, ticked the fairly uninspiring Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, the rather more attractive Copper Sunbird and even had the unexpected bonus of flushing a Great Snipe whilst looking at Slaty Egret from a roadside grassy ephemeral pan. However, we still had not managed to find the sneaky Racket-tailed Roller. Unlike most of its congeners, the Racket-tailed Roller rarely sits exposed – ready for admiration, keeping somewhat hidden within the canopy.
We dedicated an entire morning to search for the bird in earnest, basing our efforts at a known site. Although early, the morning was already warming up considerably, and birding activity was dropping off equally quickly – still no bird… We moved further down the road, parking on an open verge surrounded on both sides by pristine woodland. Then, from a distance came the cackling cacophony of a family group. All we needed to do was wait for then to come closer. And closer they came, as all 4 members of the family combined to make an incredible racket in a nearby tree. After five minutes of raucous and rollicking display, they quietened down and moved off to another part of their territory.
Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl by Daniel Keith Danckwerts
Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl by Daniel Keith Danckwerts
DANIEL DANCKWERTS – SPOT-BELLIED EAGLE-OWL
There is something incredibly special about owls and, this year, I have been lucky enough to see an unbelievable 26 species on my travels. This includes such sought-after birds as the Serendib Scops Owl, Sri Lanka Bay Owl, Akun Eagle-Owl and Pel’s Fishing Owl. However, in my mind, none of these even begin to compare with the Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl; one of Asia’s largest and scarcest owl species, broadly distributed through the Himalayas and south through India and Bangladesh into Sri Lanka. I have had a strong desire to add this one to my list since first encountering an illustration of it in a copy of the ‘Birds of Southeast Asia’ field guide many years ago. The combination of its sheer size, shaggy ear tufts, canary-yellow bill and overall whitish appearance with bold chevron-shaped spots just seemed like an unbeatable combination. Much to my delight, I had my first opportunity to look for it in November of this year.
It was a crisp morning in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka’s premier birding site, following two days of relentless rain. This, the very last morning of the tour, was our only opportunity to try for the species and so David Erterius (the co-leader on the trip), a single client from our group of 12, and I braved a 3am start. I ought to add that this preceded a long travel day, followed by our international flights; crazy, I know. We drove out from our hotel in the pre-dawn gloom and arrived to find our guide waiting beside a tea plantation. From there, we hiked a short ways to the forest edge, where we waited. The nervous minutes seemed to drag on, though we kept ourselves occupied by flicking leeches off each other. Eventually, the bird began to call in the distance. The leeches were all but forgotten and we became fixated on coaxing the owl in. After a couple more nervous minutes, the bird emerged from the forest and flew directly towards us, landing atop the nearest tree and peering down at us with its hollow black eyes. We spent at least five minutes in its company before the bird eventually flew right back over our heads and into the forest beyond. It may sound cliché, but this brief sighting was everything I had hoped it would be and more – the owl itself was large, powerful and pied, and our efforts to see it felt necessary for such a magical bird.
Following the Sri Lanka tour, David and I flew to Delhi to run the northern India circuit. In the foothills of the Himalayas, we were treated to another sighting of Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl; this time of a pair leaving their day roost. Even having seen the species before, there seemed to be an aura about the birds, and it’s for that reason that I choose this species as my ‘Bird of the Year.’
Black-headed Rufous Warbler by David Hoddinott
DAVID HODDINOTT – BLACK-HEADED RUFOUS WARBLER
On Rockjumper’s Sierra Leone tour this year, we embarked on an expedition to see Black-headed Rufous Warbler. We had tried several times in the past to see this enigmatic species on other tours, but with zero success. First, we took an arduous four-and-a-half-hour drive to the Loma Mountains. On arrival at the base of the mountain, we then undertook a tough six kilometer hike up into the forest on the mountain, arriving at our basic campsite at dusk. The following morning, we departed at 4am for a further two hours’ climb into the forest. Shortly after dawn, we reached the treeline where we could see Mount Bintumani, Sierra Leone’s highest mountain. Standing at 1,945m, it is the highest mountain in Africa west of Mount Cameroon, and made for quite the sight. After some searching, we located the localized Sierra Leone Prinia and then continued our search for the rare and little-known Black-headed Rufous Warbler. Having to work through thick vegetation, we had our work cut out for us, but finally we heard the call of this elusive species. It is one thing hearing the call, but seeing the bird is a whole different ball game, and after about an hour’s search, we managed to find an area of vines where this secretive bird came out into the open. After such a journey, it was a thrill to see this fabulous bird, and all of us enjoyed splendid views! We even managed a few photos.
King Penguins by Erik Forsyth
ERIK FORSYTH – KING PENGUIN
Anticipation was high as we approached the Australian island of Macquarie, knowing that King Penguins were here and only a huge swell would stop us landing on the beach with zodiacs. To our relief, we were given the go ahead to land. No sooner had we landed than I had turned to look along the rugged shoreline and see several Gentoo Penguins and, a little further along, a King Penguin walking out to stand on the shoreline. I’ve waited many years to see this bird, and after everyone had made their way to shore, I was eager to get closer looks. Guided by a ranger from the ANARE base, we walked along a path, avoiding standing on Elephant Seal pups, until we reached an opening on the beach where we could enjoy fabulous close looks at several King Penguins in small groups. Here, we also saw many Royal and a vagrant Chinstrap Penguin.
Bearded Vulture by Gareth Robbins
GARETH ROBBINS – BEARDED VULTURE
Ever since I first laid eyes on a photo of a Bearded Vulture, also known as Lammergeier, I’ve wanted to see this bird. My first sighting of this magnificent species was in the Drakensberg Mountain Range of South Africa in 2013. Ever since, every time I have led a Rockjumper tour up Sani Pass, we have manged to see the Bearded Vulture. Recently, on two tours in Ethiopia, I was lucky enough to see them near the Bale Mountains National Park, in the town of Debre Birhan and in Lalibela. During one morning in Lalibela, we walked up a steep trail to the church of Ashetun Mariam, situated at an altitude of 4,000m, and from there were able to get excellent eye-level views of Bearded Vultures as they flew right past us. If you’re after one of these magnificent birds, then Ethiopia is definitely the place to go, or if you happen to be in South Africa, make sure you come and see Sani Pass!
Dot-winged Crake by George L. Armistead
GEORGE ARMISTEAD – DOT-WINGED CRAKE
My first trip to Argentina in 2003 was my first trip to the bird continent of South America. Everything was new and thrilling. I certainly enjoyed the abundance of ovenbirds with names more colorful than the birds themselves, such as Bay-capped Wren-Spinetail, Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Lark-like Brushrunner, and Firewood-Gatherer to name a few. But while the ovenbirds were fun, and the Long-winged Harriers left our jaws agape, I remained especially intrigued by a bird that reminded me very much of an enigmatic bird from back home. The Black Rail is a bird undergoing a precipitous decline in the United States. My father and I once tallied 11 Black Rails in Maryland one night, yet all were heard and none were seen. Like many rails, the Black is quite vocal, but even for a rail it is exceptionally hard to see. I’ve seen just two in my life (and none since 1991). So, when I noticed the Dot-winged Crake in the field guides to southern South America, I was interested at how similar it seemed to Black Rail. And yet, Dot-winged Crake is even more enigmatic. I was also baffled to note it is considered a Porzana, (the same genus as Sora) rather than a Laterallus, like Black Rail. That first trip to Argentina was like my next eight trips there, in that I saw exactly zero Dot-winged Crakes. It remained a phantom of the marshes of the Pampas, and its voice was not even known until only just a few years ago. Since then people are beginning to see it a bit more. I was beyond thrilled on our recent Argentina tour to be walking a marsh in the Pampas when I heard a call now that was familiar through study, though not experience. I wondered… could it be…? We listened closely. It was! A Dot-winged Crake! We heard it again and again, and after a time we were shocked to see the little sleuth stalk right into view. We were all elated! An enigma of a bird, it announced itself to us, and then danced a little dance. The birding gods had smiled.
Female Schneider’s Pitta by Glen Valentine
Male Schneider’s Pitta by Shailesh Pinto
GLEN VALENTINE – SCHNEIDER’S PITTA
I love choosing my top bird/sighting for the year, but this year’s selection has proved particularly challenging due to the immense number of extremely rare birds (including several lifers!) tallied over the past twelve months. The short-list includes the likes of Geomalia, Azure Dollarbird, Scaly-breasted Kingfisher, Javan Woodcock, Bonaparte’s Nightjar, Yellow Cardinal, South American Painted-snipe, Strange-tailed Tyrant, Sickle-winged Nightjar, Saffron-cowled Blackbird and Spot-winged Falconet. However… I am a pitta man. Pittas are and probably will always be my favorite bird family. One of my lifetime birding goals is to see every single pitta, and every year I manage to edge a little bit closer. Therefore, a lifer pitta is especially awesome and memorable, hence my top bird for 2019 being the Schneider’s Pitta. Not only is this one of the largest, rarest and most attractive pittas, only known from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it is a species that was lost to science from 1918 until its rediscovery as recently as the 1988!
During my May 2019 tour of Java and Sumatra, we were fortunate to see this once-mythical and still extremely shy, rare and elusive pitta around the base of Gunung Kerinci in west-central Sumatra.
We’d spent two full days searching for this absolute mega, as well as several other highly sought-after and stunning Sumatran mountain endemics, but without much luck when it came to the pitta. We had only heard one distant bird and it was now late afternoon of our final day here. However, in what was literally the “eleventh hour”, one of the guests ventured off-trail for a “comfort stop”, and in the process discovered a female Schneider’s Pitta feeding in the open in a small forest clearing! She ran back to the group as fast as she could and, when she arrived, she looked as though she’d seen a ghost. Barely able to explain what had happened and what she’d encountered due to the bucket-loads of adrenaline and excitement running through her veins, she managed to get the message across. We all hastily made our way through the dense forest understory to where she’d seen the pitta and there it was, in all its glory, accompanied by a much shier male that hung out in the background. We sat and watched the pair of Schneider’s Pittas (arguably the “holy-grail” of all pittas) at point-blank range for at least forty minutes as they bounced around and fed in the open before we eventually departed the scene. A truly remarkable encounter and experience with one of Asia’s rarest and least-known avian gems!
Sharpe’s Longclaw by Greg de Klerk
GREG DE KLERK – SHARPE’S LONGCLAW
Although a species I had recorded on previous tours to Kenya and Tanzania, I had only ever managed to see the Sharpe’s Longclaw either fleetingly as it ducked away into dense grass tussocks, or in flight display high above ground. The onset of a drought this year, however, meant that climatic conditions in eastern Africa were significantly different. Throughout our trip, we witnessed increasingly dry and desolate conditions, although Tanzania experienced a little relief as the “little rains” began to fall, the day before we departed the Serengeti. Kenya, however, had no such respite, and reports from the far north around Lake Baringo suggested that the conditions would only get worse.
Departing a very dry Lake Nakuru on our final day of the tour, we made our way toward the Kenyan Capital of Nairobi. Just on the outskirts of town, we made a stop at a dry paddock, that in previous years had been lush and damp underfoot. Here, we began looking for our target, the endangered, range-restricted Sharpe’s Longclaw. The conditions made the birds quite difficult to locate as their coloring matched that of the surrounds perfectly, but after walking across the paddock a pair flushed out from almost under foot, landing in the open. Expecting the birds to quickly vanish into the grass, I set the scope as fast as I could, and all of us managed incredible views. Then the birds unexpectedly took flight and they landed even closer to us, providing jaw-dropping views and photographic opportunities. With that image fresh in our minds, we made our final approach to the airport, arriving as a massive thunderstorm unleashed its fury on the capital, providing the first signs of relief for Kenya, just as we departed.
Western Capercaillie by Nigel Redman
NIGEL REDMAN – WESTERN CAPERCAILLIE
My bird of the year for 2019 was a displaying male Western Capercaillie in Finland. It wasn’t a lifer for me, or even the first capercaillie that I have seen displaying, but this was one of those very special experiences that happen all too rarely in our birding careers.
It was drizzling lightly on our first morning at Kuusamo, but we didn’t let a little rain dampen our spirits. We headed to an area of boggy forest on the outskirts of town. Almost the first bird we saw as we drove along a quiet track was a male capercaillie, right at the side of the road! But it quickly retreated into the forest. We entered the forest along a cleared road nearby, our progress severely hampered by the waterlogged conditions under foot. Eventually, when it seemed that the capercaillie was long gone, we heard its extraordinary display call not far away. We froze as the bird approached us and proceeded to strut his stuff just a few meters away. With his head pointing skywards and huge tail fanned out, he paced backwards and forwards, calling continuously. The drizzle continued, but no one noticed. Cameras were clicking from every angle as the male displayed to us, our very own command performance – and we had front row seats. When camera batteries were suitably depleted and memory cards filled, we left him in peace, still strutting and calling to an empty house. It was an experience never to be forgotten.
Zigzag Heron by Rob Williams
ROB WILLIAMS – ZIGZAG HERON
2019 was a great year for birding for me, with standout species in Thailand, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, several of which were long-awaited lifers. However, it was a bird I have seen several times that ultimately stole the show. The Zigzag Heron is the world’s smallest heron and one of the hardest to really see well. Largely crepuscular and nocturnal, it is more easily heard than seen. On the Cristalino extension to the Pantanal and Cerrado Tour in Brazil, we located an adult fishing in a shaded backwater of the Cristalino River. Maneuvering the boat slowly, we managed to get into a position that gave us unobstructed views for over ten minutes, until we slowly backed away, leaving it to its fishing. Watching this spectacular little heron going about its business with the sounds and smells of the Amazon rainforest around us was a genuine privilege.
Pander’s Ground Jay by Yoav Perlman
YOAV PERLMAN – PANDER’S GROUND JAY
My bird of 2019 was unique, rare, localized and beautiful. It was a crystal-clear, crisp morning deep in the Kyzylkum desert of Uzbekistan. We were in search of one of the most enigmatic birds of Central Asia, the Pander’s Ground Jay. To be honest, it didn’t take too much effort to find the birds. Our excellent local guide, Timur, knew them well, and within minutes we were following a beautiful male on foot, doing just what they are known to do – running a-la-roadrunner across the sand-dunes. We kept our distance to not interfere with the bird’s foraging efforts, while still enjoying stunning views. The soft morning light enhancing the subtle cinnamon plumage tones, it ended up allowing us some beautiful photos opps. We stayed with the bird for about 20 minutes, admiring its fabulous black-and-white wing pattern before it jumped up into a bush. What a bird…
Przevalski’s Finch by Stephan Lorenz
STEPHAN LORENZ – PRZEVALSKI’S FINCH
This was truly an exciting birding year, and I had the chance to travel and bird on five continents. During these twelve months, I saw more than 3,200 species, a personal best for me and a year I won’t soon forget. Hence, choosing a top bird is almost an impossible task. Thankfully, I can list a couple of hundred highlights. After some consideration, I chose a monotypic species, as family listing is always fun. This top bird was seen during our Quinghai Extension to our China Highlights Tour, one of the most enjoyable and exciting tours I have ever had the pleasure of leading. We started the morning with a predawn departure from our quaint hotel nestled along the shores of the massive Quinghai Lake in Tibet. The aim was to drive high into the nearby Rubber Mountains to search for a species that has been a taxonomic puzzle for decades, with former names including Pink-tailed Rosefinch, Przevalski’s Pinktail, Przevalski’s Rosefinch, and even Pink-tailed Bunting. The bird is now known as Przevalski’s Finch, and is classified in the monotypic family, Urocynchramidae. This endemic species is always near the top of everyone’s wish list when birding in China, and our intrepid group was not any different. We reached prime elevation just at sunrise and then began a gentle climb towards a slope covered in hip-high shrubs. Miraculously, the second bird I put my binoculars onto was a male Przevalski’s Finch! Perched atop a small bush and literally glowing pink as the sun rose behind us, the air was still and spectacularly clear, offering great scope studies. We even enjoyed a short, hurried chattering from the bird. As we wandered further up the slope, we found many more specialties and discovered an additional four Przevalski’s Finches in the process, including a pair that showed really well. We all celebrated our good fortune and then gazed at the vast wilderness stretching out in front of us, feeling exceptionally privileged to have seen such a marvelous bird.