Every year our tour leaders are fortunate to enjoy thousands of birds in a hundred countries across the globe, and we thought we’d take the opportunity to share their top bird highlights for 2014 with you as recorded in their own words.
2014 has been pretty much a stay at home year for me with less than 10 lifers (compared to an average of around 500 a year for the past 10 years!) After much contemplation, my bird of the year is a local species which I have seen many times before, but enjoyed superb encounters with this year. My choice is the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. This spectacular montane vulture reminds me more of a giant falcon as it cleaves the air on long wings. Besides being an impressive bird, it’s always found in breath-taking montane wildernesses which adds to the thrill of finding this sought-after bird, despite its wide range through most of the major mountain chains of Africa, Europe and Asia. This year I spent 2 days at the Giant’s Castle Lammergeier hide in the Natal Drakensberg of central South Africa. We had up to 10 Lammergeiers in constant attendance around the hide and I was lucky enough to catch this dramatic moment when an adult bird decided to teach a youngster some manners.
2014 has been a rather hectic birding adventure. With a year list about to cross 3000 involving visits to 22 countries and every continent barring Antarctica, keeping on top of my Top 10 would take some effort. Apparently I must now pick just 1! The year started in Guatemala with a few sightings of Horned Guan, most of the Greater Antilles Endemics followed soon afterwards, mammal migration in east Africa, more than 20 Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea, piles of Endemics on the Indonesian archipelago of Sulawesi, staggering western Cape Endemics in South Africa, the Critically Endangered White-winged Nightjar in Paraguay, another span of Endemics in Colombia…
All said and done, I had already attached my Bird of the Year sticker to the rare and localised Gold-ringed Tanager of Colombia, until a few days ago that is. For those that know me, no bird family gets me quite excited as the Antpittas do. With 15 species seen in the last 10 days (4 in a day at Rio Blanco, Colombia and 5 in a matter of hours in Ecuador), I’m rather spoilt for choice. However, there is a clear winner. The glorious Giant Antpitta, a bird I have tried to find on numerous occasions without much luck, finally gave way near Mindo, Ecuador last week. The largest of all Antpittas, it is found only in Colombia and Ecuador where it is considered both rare and enigmatic.
I chose the Grey Hypocolius for a few reasons. Firstly, it exemplifies the growing popularity of birders’ quests to see all of the World’s Bird Families. This monotypic species can only feasibly be seen in a very few places on Earth, all of which are in remote, fascinating places. Secondly, this year’s search for the Hypocolius took us out across the famed Empty Quarter of the Sultanate of Oman, a vast, stark expanse punctuated only by the occasional steep, rocky wadi. We found our bird, getting several fantastic views (and some utterly amazing photos from participants) at the remote oasis of Mudday. The Hypocolius winters amidst the dense stand of date palms and thick acacia scrub which surrounds this historic oasis, where the journey to reach the bird is as exhilarating and unique as the bird is itself.
My bird of 2014 was not a lifer for me, but the quality of sightings I had made this species immediately leap to mind. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is a notoriously tricky, secretive and sought-after bird on the African continent. I had good daytime sightings on three NBZ (Namibia-Botswana-Zambia) tours that I led this year, a tour for which we have a 100% success rate when it comes to this fantastic owl. But it was two separate sightings of birds hunting at night on a customised private tour to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park that really stuck in my head. They allowed close approach, and it was wonderful to experience these huge ginger owls in such a different manner.
After much back and forth with serious contenders including Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, Papuan Logrunner and Shovel-billed Kingfisher among others I finally had to go with Dwarf Cassowary. This must be one of the world’s least known and seen large birds and is endemic to foothills and mountains of Papua New Guinea, where populations around most population centres have been hunted to extinction. Managing to find the bird for the first time on 29 tours for Rockjumper and then getting great views for everyone in the group and even photos was fantastic. For me it was also one of a number of families that was new on my second outing to this incredible island. The individual we saw was standing on the edge of a trail in Varirata National Park near Port Moresby, where it incredibly stayed for the panic stricken moments that all guides know between first finding an absolutely MEGA species and the moment when everyone laid eyes on it. After watching it for a few moments, the bird seemed to dissolve back into the forest where we didn’t find it again. Papua New Guinea has so many top birds and so many of them are hard to find, that it was really no surprise to have bird of the year come from this island for me for consecutive years. I look forward to what the New Year has to offer!
Like every year before, this year has been filled with personal birding highlights and, like every year before, choosing one above the rest has not been an easy task. I had brief views of Invisible Rail and that has to count as a contender but with no photos and such brief views, I had to exclude it. Satanic Nightjar has the kind of name and history that make it a worthy contender but not quite enough to shoot to top spot for me. Having been to the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Sulawesi and parts of Africa the list of potentials remains high but two families did stand out. Being a collector of owls and kingfishers, I decided to select my bird of the year from one of these families. One or two great owls shot onto the list but, after looking at the kingfishers, I realized I have seen over half of the world’s kingfishers during the course of this year alone! Picking my top bird thereafter wasn’t hard and Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher takes pride of place in my hall of fame. Pack your bags and head to Sulawesi, the Philippines or Papua New Guinea now; there are enough endemic kingfishers to blow your mind!
This year has been a rather quiet one for me personally from a touring perspective however from a family point of view it has been extremely rewarding with the birth of my second son, Ethan. A trip to nearby Malawi was the outstanding highlight of the year’s tours for me. This magical African country is a fantastic destination regardless of your African experience as a birder, being both excellent for first time visitors to the continent and having enough unique specials to keep the hardened world lister completely satisfied. We had a superb time and any one of Thyolo Alethe, White-winged Apalis, Bohm’s Bee-eater, Sharpe’s Akalat, Babbling Starling, Stierling’s Woodpecker or the rare Lesser Seedcracker could easily have taken top honours as my bird of the year. In the end however it went to a species that is particularly uncommon in Malawi and one that I had missed on a couple of earlier trips to the country over ten years ago. The bird in question is Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, a species that had now become one of my most wanted on the African continent. It is also an extremely localised species throughout its range so it was a really great moment when we had knockout views of a male and female on one the highest view points on the stunning Nyika Plateau in far northern Malawi.
My bird of the year is Flores Scops Owl, Otus alfredi. This species is endemic to the Island of Flores in the Lesser Sundas, Indonesia. Flores Scops Owl was discovered in 1896 and then not seen again until its rediscovery in 1994. It is currently considered endangered (less than 2500 individuals), due to continuing habitat loss and occurs only within a very small range.
Owls seem to captivate many birders and I am certainly one of those who get immense joy in seeing these fabulous birds. This particular species is very small and quite stunning and there is also a certain amount of myth about it due to such few sightings since its discovery, lack of data and elusiveness. On our Rockjumper tour in 2013 we heard this species very close by on numerous occasions without seeing it, it was like a ghost. We spent a great deal of time both during the evenings and very early hours of the morning searching for this highly elusive species without success. This happened yet again in 2014 where on numerous occasions we were unfortunate not to locate the species having heard it just a few metres away. It wasn’t until our final effort with a great deal of patience and persistence on our last evening on Flores that we all finally got to see this beauty. What a cracker!
The Pied Thrush, which I saw at Victoria Botanical Gardens, Nuwer Eliya, Sri Lanka in late December was an early Xmas present and would compete highly for number one spot as I am fond of the Zoothera family as they are high on my wanted list.
Other fabulous sightings during the year included crippling looks at Oriental Bay Owl in Taman Negara, Malaysia and also at Sepilok in Borneo, Blue-headed Pitta- an electric coloured male in the Danum Valley, Malaysia, Reddish Scops Owl at Taman Negara and then there was a lucky find in Cairns of my first Rufous Owl found roosting, 5m off the ground and in the open. The amazing encounter with a Giant Pitta in the Danum Valley that showed on several occasions… and we know how difficult and elusive pittas can be! , and then there was the fabulous close looks at a male Crested Partridge (with his red mohican) watched for 10 minutes calling alongside the forest edge…..man this is a tough choice! I particularly enjoy owls and so would have to go with Rufous Owl as my Best Bird for 2014.
The decision as to my top bird for 2014 was a particularly tough one with candidates including Blyth’s Tragopan, Malaysian Peacock-Pheasant, Grauer’s Broadbill, Friedmann’s Lark, Fire-fronted Serin, Helmet Vanga and the recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird but I eventually settled on a species that is particularly localized, rare and critically endangered: the magnificent Giant Ibis.
Once fairly widespread across South-East Asia, it is now restricted to remnant marshy and grassy glades within broad-leaved deciduous forest in northern Cambodia and southern Laos. The current world population is estimated at around 100 pairs with fewer than 500 individuals remaining and has quickly become one of the world’s most desired birds to see.
In December I found myself leading a comprehensive tour around Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam. While up in the Tmatboey area in extreme northern Cambodia we began our quest to find Giant Ibis. Waking up in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn, we headed out in our 4×4 vehicles along narrow, rutted tracks that wound their way through beautiful, fairly pristine broad-leaved, dipterocarp forest. Eventually we arrived at an area where we parked the vehicles and continued on foot. Stumbling along the tiny tracks, indistinct footpaths and eventually through waist-high grass in the dark with our headlamps and moonshine being our only visibility, we finally arrived at a potential roost for this legendary species. However, no ibis were present that morning and feeling a little disheartened we birded our way back to the 4×4’s. However, luck was on our side later in the morning when the front vehicle flushed a large shape from next to the road. The bird alighted on a nearby tree and revealed itself as a stunning adult Giant Ibis. What an incredible experience, which made the morning’s effort totally worthwhile and the sighting even more memorable.”
My bird of the year isn’t one of those ”mind-boggling ones” to be found in the tropics, but still has some kind of aura around it, at least for me and many Palearctic birders. To have seen this bird on its breeding grounds in the high altitude heart of Mongolia, a very remote and seldom-visited place, was an especially utopian event.
The bird in question: White-throated Bush Chat (Saxicola insignis), also known as Hodgson’s Bush Chat, which I was very fortunate to see along with my group during Rockjumper’s inaugural Mongolia Tour in early June last year.
Here’s the story:
On arrival at the magical Khukh Lake in Mongolia’s central Khangay Mountains, truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, we were welcomed by friendly local nomads who were the only people for miles around! The only way to reach the specific breeding area was by foot, so our trek started off the following day just after dawn. We left our base camp and ascended slowly across a rather steep mountain slope. We couldn’t have asked for better weather as the sky was blue with very little cloud, and there was almost no wind! As we got higher, the scenery just got better and better and we found other interesting species as we went along, including Altai Snowcock, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, Altai Accentor and Asian Rosy Finch. After a very scenic field lunch on the summit of the mountain at 3.200 metres, we descended slowly towards a vast alpine plateau, with tussocks and scattered tiny scrub … and there it was! At the base of a south-facing slope, this smart male was posing nicely for us, and after a while his female made a short appearance as well – target in the bag, and cheers all round!
As for the image, not the greatest by any length and more of a record shot than anything, but I think it nicely captures the magic of this most memorable moment with a super rare species that I have long wanted to see!
My ‘Bird of 2014’ perplexes me more than it will my readers. I should explain that my favourite birds are generally undemonstrative or cryptic species, birds that make themselves known more by way of their haunting songs than by jumping into plain view sporting garishly colourful plumage: owls, nightjars, and especially antpittas are those that make up my most cherished armchair recollections. So when I review the year 2014, I am surprised to see a large, showy bird clamouring for attention. Admittedly, it is a cotinga, and a little-known one at that, which at least satisfies my penchant for enigmatic species. However, hardly mimetic (in fact, alarmingly colourful), what persuades me to accept its candidature is not its showy colour, but the whole circumstances of the encounter (yes, only one in 2014). As a scarce and poorly-known near endemic to the Guiana Shield, it was one of our main target birds; indeed, the top bird for one of the participants on our Guyana trip, a leading world lister. Secondly, the fact that we had such extraordinarily close and prolonged views, allowing me to ensure that everyone had obtained a satisfying study, fumble for my decidedly non-professional camera and still manage to capture the accompanying portrait when it reappeared in a low Cecropia tree alongside our vehicle. But what really clinches its claim to ‘Bird of the Year’ is the fact that as it hopped from tree to tree this giant cotinga was vigorously mobbed by small passerines, belying the fact that it has only recently been found to eat fruit at all: the thought of this blood-coloured beast gobbling down the contents of a Palm Tanager nest is too gruesome to pass up!
In 2014 I was fortunate to bird on 3 continents and see over 2,000 species including a good number of lifers. I led Rockjumper Tours to Northern Peru and Colombia. We saw great birds on both tours and some fantastic long-awaited lifers including Scarlet-banded Barbet in Peru and Blue-wattled Currasow in Colombia. My bird of the year is the Pale-billed Antpitta. Although not a lifer, I was fortunate enough to have a really good look at this fantastic bird. I love Antpittas and seeing 3 Pale-billed Antpittas, two adults and a juvenile, bouncing around us in the bamboo-dominated forest understory was amazing. One of the adults landed on a slightly exposed log and I managed to get a picture of this rare endemic.