Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 4)

After an incredible day birding the Caracol ruins deep in the Chiquibul Rainforest, we made our way back to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Taking advantage of our high clearance vehicle, we drove down a horrible track to an area known as Big Rock Falls – an ideal place to set up camp for the night
Rio Frio Cave - en-route to Big Rock Falls

The following morning we rose just before sunrise, broke down camp, and birded the immediate area on foot. A sharp contrast from yesterday’s tropical rainforest, the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve was predominately pine forest (Honduras Pine) with a significant amount of mixed broadleaf forests. As flocks of Mealy Parrots screeched overhead, we walk around some prime open habitat which proved to be quite birdy. Acorn Woodpeckers and Yellow-tailed Orioles were joined by our first Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Baltimore Oriole of the trip, Azure-crowned Hummingbirds zipped by and both Brown and Green Jays called ahead of us in the distance. This area was particularly scrubby yielding a nice variety of warblers and sparrows including Rufous-capped Warblers, Rusty Sparrows and the distinctive call of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat which was soon followed by a rewarding view. When we got back to the 4x4, we set off for Thousand Foot Falls.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve
Thousand Foot Falls
If you’re thinking it looks a bit taller than a thousand feet, you’re absolutely correct – it actually measures 1,600 ft and is Central America’s tallest waterfall! Although the view is worth the trip alone, we were also here for a specific bird – the Orange-breasted Falcon. We parked ourselves at the overlooked waiting for the falcon but it never showed. We passed some time and birded the surrounding area – it was mid-day, getting hot and birds were inactive. Two Hepatic Tanagers were the most interesting. We headed back to the overlook and asked the gate keeper if he knew when the falcon would be around. We didn’t expect him to know but sure enough, he told us wait 15 minutes. He called it – soon enough we were watching one make several passes across the valley and in front of the waterfall and it was soon followed by a second individual!

The rest of the day was spent driving the gravel roads back to San Ignacio periodically stopping along the way to get out and explore the surrounding area. Arriving back at the main junction in the reserve, we ran into a nice feeding flock consisting of the typical species along with two new trip birds – Plumbeous Vireo and Grace’s Warbler. Interestingly, it’s not that often you get to see a Yellow-throated and Grace’s Warbler in the same tree!

4x4 came in handy
Continuing on we made several more stops in broadleaf forested patches picking up a an interesting trio of Plain Xenops, Northern Royal Flycatcher, and Worm-eating Warbler in one flock and several Golden-hooded Tanagers further up the road. Upon arriving in town, we settled down in a hostel for the night and prepared for our trip into Guatemala the following morning.

Once again, sorry for the lack of bird photos – the others in the group focused more on the photography! Some of the next posts will certainly have more bird photos as I start talking about Rio Lagartos and all of the birds of the mangroves.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 3)

After a successful day birding along Vigia Chico Road, we spent the entire following day traveling. Our first bus took us from Felipe Carrillo Puerto to the border town of Chetumal. After a quick, uneventful border crossing into Belize, we hopped on a second bus towards Belize City. Unlike Mexico’s clean modern buses, Belize uses retired school buses from the U.S., which remind me of Panama’s ‘Red Devils’, though a lot more modest.

Belizean buses
Although it was great to be able to practice my fading Spanish in Mexico, it felt even better to be back in an English speaking country, which really makes logistics a whole lot easier. Unlike the rest of Central America, the official language of Belize, a former British colony, is English.  Only 4% or so speak English at home though as the majority speak Spanish or Kriol.

Eventually we started seeing Magnificent Frigatebirds circling overhead - a good indication that we were arriving in Belize City. Due to the notoriously high crime, we were glad to spend very little time here and quickly boarded our next bus. The trip west towards San Ignacio offered quite a different setting than the tropical broadleaf forests of the Yucatan. Leaving the mangroves of the coast behind, we entered extensive savannah-wetlands which provided a different array of birds including Vermilion Flycatchers.

By late evening we arrived in San Ignacio – the base point for exploring some of the top birding spots in Belize. There were two focal areas that we wanted to check out – the isolated, infrequently visited Caracol Ruins and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. In order to get to these areas, our only option was to rent a car. For those who know me, I enjoy the challenge of spending practically nothing at the same time as seeing incredible birds. I thought about it for a good two seconds and deciding that renting a car is a must. There was no way I wanted to pass up the chance. We picked up our 4x4 in town and drove into the night along terrible mountain roads into the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Before setting up camp, we made a quick stop at a nearby lodge known for hosting Stygian Owls. Sure enough, we heard a single Stygian call a couple times from the parking lot – not a bad start! We never did get a view of one for the duration of the trip.

The rental car
The following morning we got up at first light and birded the area around D’Silva Forest Station as we waited for the guards to wake up. In order to drive the 60kms to the isolated Caracol Ruins, you need to be escorted by armed military personnel due to past issues of birders/tourists being robbed by Guatemalan thieves. Seeing that they only escort people once – 8am, we had to wait. It was lightly raining and unproductive around camp. Amongst the obnoxious Brown Jays and Melodious Blackbirds, we picked up several Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, Acorn Woodpeckers, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, and a half-dozen species of warblers among others.

We didn’t feel like waiting any longer so after a quick chat with the guards, we had permission to go early on our own. Never hurts to ask! Seeing that it was a two hour drive, we ‘tried’ to make good time to get to the ruins early but driving along a deserted road through pristine rainforest proved to be a difficult task. Flocks of Mealy Parrots screeched overhead, Gartered Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, Stripe-throated Hermit, Violet Saberwing, Crimson-collared Tanagers…then we came to a sudden halt. A bird we didn’t expect to get on this trip – Scarlet Macaw! Four individuals teed up across the forested valley in a tall tree offering excellent looks. Although not a lifer, it was great to see them again!

Along the way to Caracol
We continued onwards ticking more trip birds including our first (of many!) Ocellated Turkey of the trip as it ran across the road into the thick vegetation. We came around another bend and came to another halt – sitting right in front of us in top of a tall tree were two King Vultures!

One of two King Vultures
Eventually we made it to Caracol and aside for a few workers, we had the entire place to ourselves. Before even leaving the parking lot, we started picking up several trip birds including two Red-lored Parrots that were sitting out on an exposed branch. After sifting through a decent sized mixed flock working the edge of the parking lot, we headed down the trail to the ruins.

Main structures at Caracol
What a sight…this was our first (of three) Mayan sites that we visited during the trip and certainly my favorite. It offered an excellent combination of good birds, lack of people, and isolation. Most of our time was spent sitting on top of the largest structure enjoying distant views of a Great Curassow and a couple mixed flocks conveniently moving through at eye level. These flocks contained countless birds including Squirrel Cuckoo, Blue-crowned Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, Emerald Toucanet, Black-cheeked and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Wedge-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers, Yellow-olive, Least, and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Black-crowned and Masked Tityras, White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, numerous Lesser Greenlets, the attractive Band-backed Wrens, Tropical Gnatcatchers, several species of warblers, Crimson-collared and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Yellow-throated and Olive-backed Euphonias and so many more. On our way back to the car, it was great to watch a Kentucky Warbler skulking in the undergrowth – a different perspective than watching them in Southern Ohio!

View from the tallest structure
I think it's safe to say that Caracol was my favorite part of the entire two weeks. Seeing that I didn’t expect this blog post to be so long, it looks like I will finish Belize in another post.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 2)

Back on the mainland, we took a bus 2.5 hours south (picking up a Jabiru along the way) arriving in Felipe Carrillo Puerto a couple hours before sunset. Originally the plan was to make a quick stop at a supermarket, stock up on foods, and head straight to the famed Vigia Chico Road.  However, we were stalled for nearly two hours as we huddled under the supermarket overhang as it poured. The rain eventually ceased, we caught a taxi to the road and continued walking a couple kilometers in the dark. With our headlamps, we examined several milpas until we found one that looked good and set up camp.

Rain in Felipe Carrillo Puerto
At first light we headed back down the footpath towards the gravel road – the morning chorus was dominated by Yucatan Jays and the screeches of Olive-throated Parakeets and White-fronted Parrots overhead. Vigia Chico Road was by far one of the best areas we visited. We spent the entire day birding along the road and various paths leading into milpas and prime forests.

Track off Vigia Chico Road
I don’t even know where to begin on describing all of the highlights. With roughly 90 species, there’s just not enough time to type everything out! For those interested, you can find our counts for the day on eBird here (http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S12366328). Some of the highlights include: Keel-billed Toucans, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Rose-throated Tanagers, Gray-throated Chats, and five species of orioles. Of course, there were all of the peninsular endemics such as Yucatan Woodpecker, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Vireo, Yucatan Jays (everywhere) and without a doubt – the best bird of the trip, Yucatan Poorwill (SEEN!). 

Yucatan Poorwill
Yucatan Jay
Stumbling upon a Yucatan Poorwill was out of pure chance. Behind our camp, we heard this odd noise…perhaps a frog or insect. I was creeping around very slowly in thick vegetation trying to track down the culprit. Just before turning around and giving up, I noticed two eyes staring at me – Yucatan Poorwill! I could care less what that thing was making that noise, it led me straight to the poorwill! Not many birders get a good view of one in the middle of the day…let alone, get a photo.

After a successful day, we laid down in our tents and listened to Thicket Tinamous and a Collared Forest-Falcon calling not too far away. In the morning we’d bird the road back into town and head into Belize.

I also wanted to apologize for the lack of photos. My camera isn’t that great and since the others had good camera equipment, I decided to focus on audio recording instead.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), Belize & Guatemala (Part 1)

What a fantastic trip! It’s been an incredibly busy couple weeks – after backpacking around the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala, I returned on Christmas Eve and jumped immediately into the hustle and bustle of the holidays. I still haven’t had much time to take a break yet as I prepare for a local Christmas Bird Count that I’m compiling, but I decided I must post something on the trip. In all, we recorded 315 species - quite a bit more than expected!

The afternoon of December 10th I stepped out of the Cancun Airport and met up with the two other birders joining me for the trip. After withdrawing pesos from the ATM, we didn’t waste time and boarded an ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen to catch a ferry to Cozumel Island. It was a nice change to be back in the tropics leaving the gray Midwest behind. Waiting for the ferry, we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds circling overhead, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings working the beach the occasional Sandwich Tern amongst the hoards of Laughing Gulls.  After hearing horror stories of rough seas and sick people during the 10 mile ferry ride, we were pleased to experience very calm seas which allowed us to sit back and enjoy the 40min ride.

Cozumel Island is renowned for its beaches, diving, water sports, shopping, etc. and is a popular stop for cruise ships. Normally I would avoid touristy areas like this but Cozumel is home to several endemic species and there’s no way I was going to pass them up. Luckily, the tourists stay near the boat dock so the three of us ventured to the outskirts of town to our Couch Surfing host who agreed to put us up for two nights. To our advantage, his neighborhood was surrounded by prime island scrub. Since darkness had already fallen, we had to wait until the morning so we enjoyed a nice local dinner consisting of Chicharrón (fried pork skin), refried beans, and tortillas.

The following morning, we ventured out at first light walking down the road to an overgrown track. Black Catbirds were calling from every direction and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Tropical Mockingbirds, and the endemic subspecies of Bananaquit were just as numerous. Soon we started picking up specialties including a half dozen Cozumel Vireos amongst flocks of warblers, Yucatan Woodpecker, Mangrove Cuckoo, and the endemic subspecies of Rufous-browned Peppershrike. We reached the end of the track and ran into a nice party of birds including a cooperative female Cozumel Emerald (we did see a couple males later).

Birdy Track
Black Catbird
Cozumel Emerald (female)
After a quick break, we headed out to another promising patch of habitat picking up a half-dozen more Cozumel Vireos and finally…a Cozumel Wren! This proved to be the most difficult endemic to get (aside from Cozumel Thrasher which is presumably extinct). Too bad Cozumel Wren is currently lumped with House Wren, but still a great pick up!

Cozumel Vireo
That evening, we ventured back to this track in search of owls and nightjars. We only had a couple Common Pauraques, which called consistently within close proximity. This provided me some of the best audio recordings I recorded this trip.

The following morning before taking the ferry back to the mainland, we check the previous track once more picking up a few more new trip birds including Blue-winged Warbler, Green-breasted Mango and the endemic subspecies of Western Spindalis (aka Stripe-headed Tanager). We left the island with only 50+ species, but that was entirely expected for an island. Next post will be on the renowned birding location – Vigia Chico Road, which certainly gave the trip list a boost!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mexico is calling!

Several weeks ago it occurred to me that this has been the longest period of time in probably a decade that I haven’t traveled somewhere outside of the Great Lakes. Contrary to this year, in 2011 I found myself in a dozen countries…not just five states. This is blatantly unacceptable. Where have I not been yet? What can be done on a budget? Cancun, Mexico is probably one of the cheapest places to fly to south of the U.S. border – ok, let’s go to the Yucatán Peninsula! I created a quick itinerary and within a few hours of my initial idea, I started throwing out open invitations on Facebook. While most were too busy with university exams, visiting family and other preplanned trips, two birders eventually jumped on board including Eric Ripma from Indiana.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been working on the ultimate itinerary - to see as much as we can in a two week period.  I also enjoy the challenge of seeing how far one can go by spending as little as possible. With that said, we are not renting a car relying on the Mexican bus system and will camp for most of the trip. Here’s our route:

We’ll land in Cancun and proceed doing a big loop starting off on Cozumel for island endemics. We’ll then head south spending a couple nights outside Felipe Carrillo Puerto birding along the famous Vigia Chica Road before heading further south into Belize. When planning trips, I like to include bordering countries – especially when they have a lot of potential. In Belize we’ll bird the Mountain Pine Ridge (Stygian Owl!) and the Caracol ruins. Seeing that the famous Tikal Ruins are just on the other side of the border with Guatemala, we’ll also bird there for a day before heading back into the Yucatán. From here we’ll head west to the incredible Calakmul Ruins and finish the trip at the northern tip of the peninsula at Ria Lagartos.

I find it interesting to also include photos of items packed. Being a backpacking trip, we can’t carry much. Here’s what I’m taking.

From left to right: sleeping bag (2lbs 12oz.), solo backpackers tent,
 camera gear, acoustic recording equipment (from the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology to record songs/calls), dry bags, passport, binoculars,
extra clothes and a few toiletries and essentials. Surprisingly enough,
on my 4-month, nine county backpacking trip around Southern
Africa, I packed even lighter than this!

 All of these items fit perfectly into a camelback backpack and dry sac.
My flight leaves early tomorrow morning (Dec 10th) at 5:25am and I won’t return until Christmas Eve. Even though I have birded much of the southern U.S. border, Panama and Ecuador, this trip should still put my world list over the 2,000 milestone! In the meantime, enjoy the holidays and check back after Christmas for a trip report!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Taughannock Loon Watch (part two)

Taughannock Loon Watch - picnic table wind breaker
(Photo by Bill Evans)
Today marked the end of the season counting southbound loons over Cayuga Lake. Altogether, a little over 6,000 Common Loons were counted in addition to a half-dozen or so Red-throated Loons.  This appears to be quite an impressive number, but looking at the years 1993 through 1997, the average was over 10,000 loons! This fall actually fell well short (~600) than the lowest count between that period (6,703 in 1994). It’s hard to say if their numbers are considerably lower than 15-20 years ago after only one season. Idealy the count should be conducted for another couple seasons to establish an average. If the numbers like this persists, then we should start looking into factors such as avian botulism, which has affected large numbers of loons in the past.

Even on slow days, it’s never a dull moment on the lake. Stationary counts from Taughannock every morning, you’re bound to see other birds as well. During the five week period, I recorded over 70 other species– mostly waterfowl as you would expect. Some of the highlights include: Brant, 4,000+ Snow Geese, all three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Merlin, Peregrine Falcons, a Golden Eagle, Snow Buntings on a daily basis, and of course, the occasional winter finch - White-winged & Red Crossbills and Common Redpoll all making an appearance.

I’m really going to miss it out there. This evening I drove back home (Ohio) so that I can start packing for my trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala this Monday. I'll post a little more on that this weekend!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Taughannock Loon Watch

      Bill Evans, creator of Old Bird (a nonprofit which facilitates acoustic monitoring of avian flight calls), discovered back in 1992 that Common Loons had a significant southbound migration route over Cayuga Lake. For those geographically challenged, Cayuga Lake is the longest of the glacial Finger Lakes in central New York, stretching 40 miles north of Ithaca. In the fall, Common Loons congregate on Lake Ontario and when winds are favorable from the NW, they head south following Cayuga Lake and eventually over land towards the Atlantic coast.

Common Loon fall migration route
      Between 1993 and the mid 2000’s, dedicated loon counters position themselves at Taughannock (a prominent point along Cayuga Lake) every morning for two hours from late October through early December. Thousands of loons were counted annually with the highest seasonal total of 13,250 in 1995.

Taughannock Falls State Park - point
Taughannock pier where the loon watch is conducted
      Seeing that the count hasn’t been conducted for several years and this fall marks the 20th anniversary, Bill Evens invited me to be the chief counter at Taughannock and I gladly accepted the position. I have now been counting for 13 days and the current total is 4,254 Common Loons (and 4 Red-throated Loons).

Yours truly at the loon watch
      The counts are conducted for two hours every morning starting 15 minutes before sunrise and split into eight 15 min periods. The first several periods make up the first 'wave' of loons - those lifting off Cayuga Lake further north. Halfway through the two hours, there's a break and then the second 'wave' arrives, those from Lake Ontario. Unlike the first wave, these birds have already gained altitude and are sometimes only specks in the sky. Depending on weather, either wave can be exceptionally larger than the other. On November 3rd, I had well over 500 loons in the last 15 min period. By the end of that period, the loons have ceased. Apparently they were stalled, probably due to weather, and then came through all at once.

Common Loon (Photo © Laura Keene)
      When you have big days such as November 3rd, you'll also have slow days. Fortunately, Cayuga Lake is also the migratory route for a lot of other species including all three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and thousands of Brant. With Ithaca, Cornell University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology right at the southern end, rarities are reported regularly so it's never a dull moment on the lake. Over the past couple weeks I've had Purple Sandpiper, Parasitic Jaeger, Red Phalarope, and finches galore. Today a Northern Gannet was reported just north of Taughannock so who knows what might fly by during one of my counts!

Be sure to check back for another update...