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 ( 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...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Turkey Vulture nestlings

Of the 196 species of birds confirmed breeding during the latest Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (2006-11,, it is probably safe to say that Turkey Vultures have one of the lowest nest confirmation rates out of all common species.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that they prefer to nest concealed away in old, abandoned barns, hollowed out logs and rocky niches. Using data from the breeding bird atlas, the comparable Red-tailed Hawk clearly shows the difference between confirmation frequencies. (Note: black represent confirmed).

Red-tailed Hawk - Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II results
Turkey Vulture - Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II results
Interesting enough, using eBird data for Ohio, during the past 10 years for the months of June-July, Red-tailed Hawk had a report rate frequency of roughly 11% of all checklists, while Turkey Vulture hovered around 17%. With that said, you can imagine my excitement being able to monitor a nest right down the road.

For the past three and a half weeks I’ve been in west-central Ohio doing some non-bird related work in the agriculturally dominated Darke County. Upon arriving, a local birder and I checked an old barn that has had Turkey Vultures nesting there for several years and sure enough, here is what we found…

Turkey Vulture young
As we climbed the ladder, their raucous hissing immediately caught our attention.  A simple impression in the hay tucked in the corner of the loft is all these prehistorically-looking fuzz balls need. 

After a couple weeks, we ventured back and discovered our ugly friends have doubled in size. I took this quick video before leaving them be. No, that’s not my cell phone having sound issues, that is the sound of two angry vulture nestlings. Some say it has the distinctive sounds of whip cream coming out of an aerosol can.

I've always had a keen interest in bird ecology and behavior so having the opportunity to observe the nesting habits of vultures has been quite educational. In a few weeks they’ll make their first flight attempts and eventually leave the nest.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Local Patch Big Year

Most birders have a local patch – either a county, backyard, neighborhood park, or a defined radius surrounding their home and will keep a running tally on all of species seen or heard within this boundary. Some birders will go one step further – commit to a local patch big year to see as many species as they can in a single year – and I did just that.

Back in mid-January, I moved to northwest Ohio to join the team at Black Swamp Bird Observatory as the new Education and Outreach Specialist. Of the many perks, one that clearly stood out was the fact that I was now living less than three miles from the famed migrant trap – Magee Marsh. Combined with the nearby Ottawa and Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuges, Metzger Marsh and Mallard Club Marsh Wildlife Areas and Maumee Bay State Park – the Magee region is clearly an incredible area that offers a lot migrant stop-over habitat, wintering grounds for tens of thousands of waterfowl and prime coastal habitat along Lake Erie. I was set.

When planning a local patch big year, or any kind of big year for that matter, a boundary must be created. As with several other birders in Ohio who are doing local patch big years, I wanted to set a county as the boundary – however, my ‘local patch’ is basically split right in half by two counties, Ottawa and Lucas. Seeing that I already have quite an advantage with one of Ohio’s birdiest regions, I opted out doing an entire county and set the boundary below - approximately 18 miles by 4 miles.

Local Patch Big Year boundary
From the beginning, I set my goal at 250 species – the bar was set high but still reachable. By the end of May, my patch list was already sitting at 229 with some ridiculous misses (i.e. Greater Scaup, Common Loon, Black Tern, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Pine Siskin). But there’s still plenty of time.

Starting in mid-February, which is when I initially started my local patch big year, I quickly checked off the more uncommon winter species – Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll.  Thanks to the invasion of Snowy Owls this past winter, two appeared within my patch. Normally, Snowy Owl would go under the list of unlikely patch birds so it was good to get that one right away.

February and March yielded good numbers of waterfowl – 27 species to be exact. Ottawa NWR holds impressive numbers of waterfowl including upwards to ten thousand Tundra Swans. Late March through April provided decent shorebirding, especially south of Magee Marsh off Benton-Carroll Road and at several of the units in Ottawa NWR. Twenty-one species of shorebirds is nothing to complain about seeing that fall is yet to come! Highlights include American Avocets, Upland Sandpipers, and a Wilson’s Phalarope.

American Avocets - Maumee Bay (Photo by Sherrie Duris)
Then May came around – what can I say? April 20th I was sitting somewhere in the 140’s. By the end of May I added 80-90 species. For those not familiar with the incredible birding in the area – Magee Marsh is one of the top migrant stopover spots in the United States. Tens of thousands of birders flock to Magee every spring to see warblers and other migrants literally dripping out of the trees. I ended with 35 species of warblers including two Kirtland’s and several Connecticut’s. Swainson’s and Worm-eating are the only eastern warblers I still need for my patch. Other highlights for the month of May include American White Pelicans, Glossy and White-faced Ibis, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, several Clay-colored Sparrows and the greatest highlight yet – Least Tern! Thanks to Ohio birder, Sherrie Duris, on May 16th, she called me stating that she was sitting there looking at a Least Tern at Maumee Bay State Park. Even today, I have no idea how I got there so quickly but was able to observe it for the rest of the evening as it roosted on the beach and took several passes along the shore. It ended up sticking around for several days offering great views to a lot of birders. It’s not every day you get a state bird in your local patch!

Biggest Week in American Birding crowd
looking at a Kirtland's Warbler
Least Tern - Maumee Bay (Photo by Sherrie Duris)
Now that its mid-June, the birding has slowed down considerably and most of my time is being spent elsewhere. It’s been over two weeks since I’ve birded my patch and I don’t have any plans to do so for another couple weeks. Before the end of summer I will have to find some time to target some of the breeders including King Rail, American Bittern, Black Tern, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Then fall will come around and the possibilities are endless – more shorebirds, migrants and vagrants.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: Birds of India (2nd Edition)

I recently received my Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and The Maldives (second edition) in the mail and haven’t been able to get any work done since. For those familiar with the first edition, the authors have put in an exceptional amount of work creating an even better, up to date resource and the most comprehensive field guide for the Indian subcontinent. The 226 plates (72 more than the 1st edition) covers all 1,375 species of residents, migrants and vagrants – and better yet, the range maps and text now mirrors the plates eliminating the hassle of relentlessly flipping through pages. It also includes taxonomical name changes as well as accurate, updated range maps.

As with all field guides, there will always be cons and with this guide there was one that caught my attention. A few of the plates appear to be moderately dark (i.e. shorebirds) – this can either be the artist that covered that section or simply the printers. However, the vast majority of the plates are exceptional and precise.

Plate 82: Parakeets
Plate 124: Jays and Magpies
Without a doubt, this user-friendly guide is a must for anyone heading to the Indian subcontinent or for those who simply want to add another remarkable field guide to their library. My next backpacking trip will hopefully be the Indian subcontinent and the Birds of India will certainly be the first item packed.

Note: this advanced copy of the Birds of India was sent to me by Princeton Press for review. The paperback publishes on March 7, 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Possible Hoary Redpoll

Yesterday, Cleveland birders Paula Lozano and Bob Finkelstein joined me on a quick jaunt into the heart of Toledo in search of finches. Woodlawn Cemetery, our destination, has been hosting White-winged Crossbills and Common Redpolls for most of the winter. To cut to the chase, it didn’t take long before we were watching roughly 70 Common Redpolls and 45 White-winged Crossbills – not bad for a non-irruption year!

As I reported elsewhere, amongst the Common Redpolls was a good candidate for a female Hoary. A shorter, stubbier bill, clean rump and undertail coverts, thin streaking on its flanks and a generally frostier appearance is what caught my attention. I wasn’t able to get the greatest photos that would clinch its identification but would like to hear from others what they think. So far I’ve privately sent these photos to a few other birders and the general consensus is leaning towards Hoary.

Note pale rump and undertail coverts, thin streaking
on flanks and general frostier appearance
Unfortunately, none of my photos showed
the short, stubby bill
Angle showing frostier appearance


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Black-tailed Gull in Ohio

Back on November 16th last year, while backpacking somewhere in Tanzania, I remember checking my phone and learning that a Black-tailed Gull was discovered in Ashtabula, Ohio – a first state record and 20th species of gull for Ohio (if accepted). Being 8,000 miles away, I had to accept that fact that I’m just not going to get that bird. OK, not just ‘that bird’, but an ABA Code-4 vagrant from East Asia! Fast-forward to today, the gull remains after nearly two months! Incredible and probably one of, if not the longest, staying Black-tailed Gull in North American history. It will be interesting to see just how long it decides to stick around.

Obviously this is a state bird, well ABA bird, ok a lifer to be exact so I was pleased to return to Ohio a few days ago and see that the gull was still being regularly reported. This morning, Ryan Steiner and I ventured up there and after two hours, the gull was found. What a great bird to return to Ohio for!

Showing obvious black sub-terminal tail band (c) Chris West
BTGU resting (c) Chris West
 Jen Brumfield has been tracking its sightings, movements, habits etc on her website at ( so be sure to check it out for up to date information and maps if you’re heading that way.

What will be next?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Final report from Africa

Peering out the window there’s a thin coating of snow and a wind chill of 21˚F – as you have probably guessed, I’m no longer in Africa. After my previous blog post two and a half weeks ago, fellow Ohio birding friend Brad Wilkinson joined me on a quick Cape to Kruger spree concluding in Johannesburg, where I boarded a flight back to the states…indefinitely. After an incredible two years living in Cape Town, South Africa, I’m now back in Ohio where I will be busy as the new Education and Outreach Specialist for Black Swamp Bird Observatory along with several other projects.

I’ve learned that traveling and maintaining a blog concurrently is a difficult task. Preferring to blog about present day topics, I will regretfully delay concluding my write-ups on my four month backpacking trip until a further date and instead wrap up 2011 with some photos from my recent Cape to Kruger trip.

This shy African Penguin is part of a much larger
colony at Boulder's Beach, Cape Town - one of
only two populations on the mainland
While looking for endemic larks in the Agulhas Plains,
this African Pipit hopped into view with some nesting material
The national bird of South Africa, these Blue Cranes
are common in the Agulhas Plains
Many great birds were found at Mkuze Game Reserve
but the more widespread Lesser Masked-Weaver
allowed the best photography
Countless mammals were recorded on the trip including
Leopard, Spotted Hyenas, Sable Antelope and this White Rhino
Wakkerstroom is a must if you bird South Africa
offering a lot of range-restricted species including
Botha's and Rudd's Larks. However, the more
common Long-tailed Widowbird is always a sight.
Eastern Long-billed Lark is also found around
Wakkerstroom on rock-covered slopes
Kruger National Park is the size of Switzerland
yet traffic jams still occur
The vulnerable Southern Ground Hornbill is
the largest species of hornbill in the
world weighing between 5-10lbs