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400 but really 585

Saturday, May 8, 2010
It has been a fabulous spring here in the beautiful Shenandoah Mountains. Now approaching mid May migration is in full swing. I have been getting out birding every chance that I get. On May 4th I was delighted to find my 400th bird species of the year. A Cape May Warbler that was singing in the treetops at Ragged Mountain Natural Area in Charlottesville, VA. I did a bit more research curious at how many birds I had seen in the last 12 months from May 4th to May 4th. I was astonished to realise that I have seen 585 species since May 4th 2009 including my California and Costa Rica banding stints each several months long. So I will list by 20 favorite birds seen in the past year in no particular order to celebrate the past year of birding.

1. Pink-footed Shearwater spotted through the fog offshore of Crescent City, CA.

2. Boat-billed Heron - A small group found at the lagoon in Carara National Park in Costa Rica. This bird had started to become a nemesis bird for me, not particularly difficult to see but one I just kept missing. Plus it is just so weird looking.

3. Green Ibis - found while kayaking in Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica. Ibises are just so cool, especially when they are green.

4. Great Green Macaw - Only 200 - 1000 pairs are estimated to remain in the wild and I will never forget seeing a pair dive and bank into the sunlight screaming over the meandering canals of Tortuguero National Park.

5. Spotted Owl - Although never actually seen, this highly endangered species often sang me to sleep in my tent in the mountains of Northern California

6. Black Swift - These specialists can usually only be found near waterfalls where they will build their nests behind the falling water for protection from predators. Masters of flight, watching these larde swifts forage for insects over a misty waterfall pool is one of my birding highlights of the year. Seen at Burney Falls near Burney CA, and at Catarata Las Fortunas in Costa Rica.

7. Coppery-headed Emerald - While there are certainly species of hummingbird more beautiful and with more showy names such as the Violet-Sabrewing or the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, this species is unique in that it is endemic to only the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Seeing them at the Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve was a special treat.

8. Royal Flycatcher - What can I say about this bird. Just look at it. It's amazing. We caught this bird and banded it at Cano Palma Research Station located in the Barro Colorado Reserve in Northeastern Costa Rica. Only the 3rd record of this species in 20 years.

9. Red-capped Manakin - Quite possibly the coolest bird in the world. It's stunning red cap and bright neon yellow thighs are amazing enough but when you look at the moonwalk dance that this bird does to attract females you have to agree that this bird is amazing.

10. Northern Shrike - Searching for this bird with my good friends Dan Haas and Warren Strobel in Queens Anne County, MD was a very enjoyable birding experience. Seeing it just as we were about to call it a day and after searching in vain for the large dinosaur like Sandhill Crane made it even more enjoyable

11. Song Wren - This bird may have the beautiful song that I have ever heard - frequently heard singing in Cano Palma, Costa Rica but only captured once.

12. Varied Thrush - of the 19 species of Thrush I have seen in the past year this bird is my favorite. It's plumage is stunning and it's eerie, creepy space alien song that sifts through the Redwoods from all directions is a defining sound of Pacific Northwest forests.

13. Hermit Warbler - Of all the wood warblers I think that this is the most beautiful. This was a commonly captured bird in N. California and it was always a treat to find one in the nets.

14. Mourning Warbler - For some strange reason this bird showed up 5 feet from my door on April 24th of this year. The earliest record in VA by 6 days and the earliest in the piedmont by 2 weeks. I credit this bird with getting me out of my non photo taking funk that I had fallen into.

15. Red-legged Honeycreeper - One of those birds that you just have to google and see the picture to see why it is on this list. At Manuel Antonio National Park, CR.

16. Evening Grosbeak - This bird, apart from being very beautiful is becoming increasingly rare. One banding station in Lassen National Forest is California always had them and their distinctive flight calls always alerted to me their presence often atop a strand of conifers nearby.

17. Bicolored Antbird - Since these birds occur in only tropical and subtropical regions, it was interesting to see many different representations of the family in Costa Rica. Named antbirds because they follow army ant swarms and eat the insects that are trying to escape the ant swarm.
Early ornithologists didn't know what to call them so they just named them after things they looked like hence, antwren, antshrike and antvireo. Not all these birds follow swarms, but the bicolored antbird is an obligate follower of ant swarms. Often birds will follow the same swarm their whole lives. Finding an army ant swarm is a highlight for anyone birding in the neotropics.

18. Red-Necked Phalarope - This bird was a highlight for me because of the exceptional photo shoot I was able to get of a very tolerant bird found in the Arcata Marsh in CA.

19. American Pygmy Kingfisher - A kingfisher the size of a warbler. What could be cooler than that? Seen on numerous occasions on the east coast of Costa Rica.

20. Marbled Murrelet - The life history of this bird is insane. A seabird that flies inland as far as 50 miles to nest in old growth Redwood, of Douglas Fir forests in the Pacific Northwest. After a one month incubation period it is then fed by the parents for 40 days before fledging. The parents must constantly return to the sea for food and their flight calls can be heard early in the morning as they are returning from the sea to the nest. I was lucky to participated on several surveys offshore Northern California this past summer.

Some recent pics:

Indigo Bunting at Secluded Farm outside Charlottesville, VA

Bobolink at Old Trail - Crozet, VA

Prairie Warbler in Crozet, VA

Mourning Warbler outside my front door in Charlottesville, VA. New early date for VA

Friday, March 26, 2010

I arrived back in Virginia this week after spending 2 and a half months in Costa Rica. I finished with 287 birds (not 300 as I planned because of last minute scheduling change). But that's Ok. I saw lots of cool birds, and other things as well. Such as this Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) Notice how when it is sleeping it hides its brilliant colors very well in an attempt to avoid predation, but once awakened looks like a totally different animal. It must work very well since despite being fairly common, this is the only one I saw.

Another interesting thing I saw only once was this strange looking, but beautiful mushroom. The bizarre looking fruiting body is only around for a few days and smells like rotting flesh in order to attract flies that will carry away the spores.

Here is yet another eyelash viper found in Tortuguero National Park. This is the brown phase which much less easily seen that the yellow phase I had seen earlier. It was only 10 feet away from our banding station and we worked nearly the whole day before guide pointed it out to a group of tourists who were passing by the banding station. Scary but beautiful.

One of the most amazing things I visited in Costa Rica was the Hummingbird Feeder Garden just outside the gates of the famed Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve. There are numerous feeders up and the entire garden is buzzing with hummingbirds of all kinds. I counted 13 species in the 20 minutes that I was there but I overheard a guide saying that over 30 species have been seen at the garden. I managed to snap a few pictures while I was there.

(above 2) Purple-throated Mountain Gem - male and female

A Magenta-throated Woodstar hovers while a Coppery-headed Emerald feeds.

My personal favorite, the Violet Sabrewing


A Green Violetear feeds while a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird come in for a landing.

Imposter!!! A Bananaquit pretends to be a hummingbird. I am not fooled.

(Above 3) Scenic shots from Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific. This park is home to some endemic Costa Rican birds such as Fiery-billed Aracari.

The last bird I banded, a male Chestnut backed Antbird at Cano Palma in Barro Colorado Reserve, Costa Rica.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

So my short banding stint has finished in Tortugero. All in all it was great. I got to band lots of cool birds, and hang out on the beach for seven weeks. I leave behind the tremendous staff at CCC who work so hard to make the research center successful. I also leave behind the turtle researchers and incoming bird banders. It is such a treat to be able to work with other biologists from around the globe. Special thanks to Ivan the boat captain for graciously waking at the crack of dawn to drive us through the canals (and leave us isolated in the pouring rain), Juanita for cooking wonderful Costa Rica fare (beans and rice) and Javier for overseeing the lodge. I finished in Tortuguero having seen 153 bird species including the rare WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON and beauties such as ROYAL FLYCATCHER, GREAT GREEN MACAW & GREEN IBIS. I am now on a mad dash throughout the country to try and see 300 species before I leave. I am currently at 249 and have a full day of birding Manuel Antonio National Park tomorrow where I hope to find some south Pacific endemics. I have seen over 100 life birds in the past week including remarkable species such as RESPLENDENT QUETZAL, 3 WATTLED BELLBIRD, EMERALD TOUCANET, SCARLET THIGHED DACNIS, AND BLUE LEGGED HONEY CREEPER as well as 13 species of humming bird including the endemics FIERY THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and COPPERY HEADED EMERALD. I hope to continue this pace throughout my visit. Costa Rica is truly an astounding place with so many beautiful birds that words cannot describe. Since I have shelved my camera in order to focus more on finding birds I will have to leave you to google any birds I mention (which I suggest you do).

My travels took me up through the central valley to Arenal Volcano National Park to look for some middle altitude species on the Carribean side of the Continental Divide. The park and surrounding areas are amazing and I found many interesting species such as NICARAGUAN SEEDFINCH, whose massive beak is bigger than it's head, and the stunningly beautiful GREEN HONEYCREEPER as well as a BLACK SWIFT that flew to a perch behind a waterfall.

I then headed out through the valley across Lake Arenal and up to Monte Verde, the world renowned cloud forests. Here I had the most amazing day of birding I have ever had. I was able to log 27 lifers in the park. The mountain is uniquely situated on the continental divide and offers chances to see middle altitude species as well as those from both sides of the divide. It is also home to the stunning RESLENDENT QUETZAL of which I was able to find 4 in the day and countless species of hummingbird. I found 13 hummers in the park in one day. The following day I headed out to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Located slightly higher in altitude the park boasts slightly different bird fauna than Monte Verde. Here I was able to find the stunning EMERALD TOUCANET as well as Costa Rica's 2 resident Redstart species - COLLARED REDSTART, & SLATE-THROATED REDSTART. I was able to add 9 more lifers to my list before the day was done including an 8KM walk back to town to tick off a few new grassland species most notably OLIVE-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT, a long overdue bird.

Back to Monteverde and 8 hours on 3 buses brought me to Manuel Antonio where I ticked of 3 new species near the hotel. Tomorrow I will spend the day in the park before heading to Carara National Park, about 75 KM north along the coast. This is Costa Rica's premier birding spot. It is located in a transition zone between the southern humid rainforests and the northern dry forests. As a result species from both wet and dry zones are possible. I will finish my trip off banding for 3 days with Chespi, the Partners in Flight Costa Rica Representative in the higlands at over 2500 Meters. Here I hope to find highland specialties such as SOOTY ROBIN, VOLCANO JUNCO, VOLCANO HUMMINGBIRD, & TIMBERLINE WREN in my quest for 300 Costa Rican species. Wish me luck!!!!

Beautiful Birds

Thursday, February 25, 2010
So, I could talk about rain in all of my blogs. I could talk about the 11.7 inches that fell in 18 hours flooding half the town. (It is hard for this place to flood badly mainly because it is already flooded). I could talk about the 3 mile walk home from the airport banding site along the beach in drenching downpours, strong Carribean winds, amongst lightning bolts and falling coconuts; but I am not going to talk about rain. Instead I am going to talk about cool birds. Like this Royal Flycatcher that we caught at Cano Palmas Tropical Research Center. This amazing bird rarely displays its spectacular crest unless courting or agitated. Banding sessions are a great way to see the crest because the bird leaves it open constantly in defense. This bird is rare in the Carribbean, but has been caught in the past by the banding teams here. Last one was in 2008. This is a bird that I actually banded in Peru in 2004 and depending on some sources they list it as a different species meaning that I have banded 2 different species of Royal Flycatchers!

Another amazing bird that I am going to talk about is this Red-capped Manakin. Like the white collared manakin that we catch very frequently and other manakins, the males preform spectacular courtship dances in hopes of wooing an available female. This bird's dance is so elaborate it has earned the nickname the "moonwalking bird" because of its slide dance that it preforms. MOONWALK VIDEO

We also band hummingbirds. Here in Costa Rica there is an astounding diversity of hummingbirds. My guide book lists 57 species! Compared to the one species on the east coast of the US the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (which incidently is a winter resident in Costa Rica) the skies are filled with tiny flying jewels. We have captured 6 species. This bird, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is our most frequently captured hummer.

The bands we use are very very tiny. They come in a pre printed sheet of aluminium which we then cut out, trim, shape, sand, and polish so that they are safe for the birds. This bird we captured early in the season, a Long-billed Hermit (below), was already banded. Since no banding has occured since last winter, we know that this bird has survived here for at least a year. Pretty impressive given the numbers of hawks, kites, falcons, lizards, snakes, and other predators that would love to eat one of these.

Another Long-billed Hermit (below 2). This beautiful bird is large for a hummingbird, topping the scales at about 6 grams compared with the Ruby-throated Hummingbird at about 4 grams. In the extremes, Bee Hummingbirds of Cuba weigh only 2.2 grams while the largest hummingbird in the world, the Giant Hummingbird of South America, can weigh 20 grams (think song sparrow size).

Notes from the field:

Get ready all you northerners. (Which from here includes just about everyone). Migration is starting down here. Shorebirds are increasing in number especially Sanderlings which have arrived by the hundreds compared with the small numbers seen this winter. I heard a Yellow-throated Vireo, and winter resident here that is normally silent, sing its full song. We have also seen an increase in the number of new bands applied to Prothonotary Warblers. (We have been just catching the same 9 or 10 individuals over and over again but today we applied 3 new bands). Five times a day we conduct migration counts from the beach and note all birds moving north. As you can imaging this was pretty boring during the winter when we only occasionally saw Magnificent Frigatebirds, or Common Black Hawks that were probably just foraging rather than migrating. Things have changed. Purple Martins and Barn Swallows are now migrating in huge numbers with our counts reaching into the hundreds for the day. Cliff Swallows and bank Swallows are also on their way in lesser numbers. It is very interesting to see how migration begins. While the resident Mangrove Swallows and Gray-chested Martins continue their normal feeding, migratory swallows take on a whole new task. The impressive feat of migrating thousands of miles north to take advantage of the available food sources that come with spring in the US and Canada. Lets hope they make it. While Costa Rica is losing birds to northern forests for the summer, some birds also come here from South America. Yesterday, I spotted 2 Yellow-green Vireos just outside the banding station which surely have just arrived from wintering further south.

The Spectacular Blue-gray Tanager (above)

Mangrove Cuckoo

Black-cowled Oriole (note that one individual is banded, not me!)