November 2007 Birdletter, Part II December 06, 2007
Part II of the November 2007 issue of VENT's printed newsletter, the Birdletter, includes articles about Victor Emanuel's favorite destination in the world—the El Triunfo cloud forest in Mexico, our Winter Washington and British Columbia tour, the 2008 Austin, Texas Birding and Nature Festival, Southern Britain: Birds & History, South Florida and the Dry Tortugas, Classic China: Hong Kong and Sichuan, and our Grand New Mexico tour—which will be co-led by Barry Zimmer and Steve Hilty in 2008.
In this issue:
MEXICO: EL TRIUNFO
By Victor Emanuel
VENT operated the first tour ever to visit El Triunfo in March 1977, thirty years ago. Since then we have taken over three hundred birders to this remarkable cloud forest and have helped in the effort to protect it for future generations. Every trip we make seems to qualify as the best ever. In truth they have all been wonderful. This year's trip was another great experience. I had not been to El Triunfo, my favorite destination in the world, since 2004. It was wonderful to once again walk those marvelous trails, through truly magical forest, with a fine group of participants. I was especially glad that my good friends, Bob and Birgit Bateman, were part of the group. I had been urging them to come on this trip for ten years. They were finally able to fit it into their schedule. At our dinner the last night in Tapachula, Bob said to me, "Victor, you are right. This is the king of tours."
We enjoyed many special experiences on this trip. The first morning we had the best looks I have ever had at a Belted Flycatcher in Sumidero Canyon National Park. Later, Barry Lyon, who was co-leading the tour with me and Brad Boyle, electrified me and others by calling out, "I've got a Slender Sheartail." This very long-tailed hummingbird is endemic to Chiapas. I had only glimpsed one briefly years ago. This individual, a male, stayed around for about 15 minutes and even perched repeatedly, allowing scope views.
Once we arrived at the valley of El Triunfo, we all felt as if we were truly in a tropical montane paradise. We awakened to the plaintive calls of Resplendent Quetzals and went to sleep listening to the hooting of Fulvous Owls. Everyone had numerous great looks at Quetzals and Horned Guans, as well as many other species. As spectacular as the Horned Guan was, some participants felt the Highland Guan, with its remarkable call and flight display, was almost as exciting.
Horned Guan — Photo: Ted Eubanks
Most memorable for me was sitting with part of the group, beside the trail, and observing a Horned Guan for over an hour. As we sat there, mostly in silence, we listened to the ethereal song of the Brown-backed Solitaire and the calls of an Emerald Toucanet. A soft wind rustled the leaves of the cloud forest trees. The Horned Guan had settled onto a moss-covered branch only 35 feet away from us. Bob Bateman, one of the most renowned nature artists in the world, was sitting next to me sketching the guan's head. We all agreed it was one of our most memorable times ever in nature.
VENT is so fortunate to have Brad Boyle as a leader on our El Triunfo tours. He first co-led our El Triunfo trip with me and Greg Lasley in 1998 and has co-led it almost every year since then. Brad is both a world-class botanist and a superb tour leader. His knowledge of El Triunfo, and its birds, plants, and other living things, is truly awesome. He speaks fluent Spanish and has camped in many beautiful wild places in North and Central America with his wife Alice. Brad holds a Ph.D. from Washington University.
March 15-25, 2008
With Brad Boyle and Hector Gomez
$2995 from Tuxtla Gutierrez (ends in Tapachula)
WINTER WASHINGTON & BRITISH COLUMBIA
By Bob Sundstrom
Our 2006 Winter Washington & British Columbia tour took place during a week of almost spring-like weather, amid sunny days, blue skies, and temperatures reaching into the 50s. Our tour route ran from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula to Vancouver Island, and then on to mainland British Columbia before returning to the North Puget Sound region. Birding extensively along the edges of marine bays and straits, along forest edges, among vast, diked fields of delta flats, and from the bows of ferries, we had many terrific birding experiences. Together with wonderful food, very nice lodging, and great company, it was a week to remember.
Quite likely the bird of the tour, for just about everybody, was the Snowy Owl—and we saw at least 19 different Snowies! The first was an extremely white individual, scoped nicely along Port Susan Bay on our first day of birding. But along Boundary Bay in British Columbia, we truly soaked up the Snowies. One late afternoon we counted ten at one spot, as we saw Snowy Owls on driftwood, on grassy mounds, and atop small trees. On two occasions we had superb morning light views of Snowies, in one instance of two heavily marked immatures at Point Brunswick that sat so close by you could see every feather. We also had wonderful views of Short-eared Owls flying moth-like across the Flats, as well as superb views of birds sitting on the ground or in a bare tree, showing their tiny, "short ears." And it was our good fortune to see not one, but three different tiny Northern Saw-whet Owls on day roosts, with each view a bit better than the last.
Perhaps the most impressive wildlife spectacles of the entire tour were the immense flocks of Snow Geese numbering in the tens of thousands. Bald Eagles sat on the ground like sentries around the flock edges. On the Skagit Flats, we watched thousands of Snow Geese rise together, all giving voice at once, as a Bald Eagle winged toward the flock. The final morning of the tour, the Snow Geese were shoulder to shoulder, right up to the edge of the road—close enough to reveal the diminutive Cackling Goose weaving through the massive flock of white geese. Near the mouth of the Dungeness River, we scoped a flock of at least 100 "Black" Brant at the tidal edge, close enough to see nicely the Brant's white, lace-like collar.
Swans were truly plentiful. With both Tundras and Trumpeters in the same swan flocks, we could make direct comparisons of their field marks, while also seeing the size difference between the species. Huge Trumpeter Swans were seen every day of the trip, with some flocks numbering in the hundreds.
There were many, many Northern Pintail to admire, often at close range, and with the winter sun lighting up every detail of their elegant plumage. Handsome Eurasian Wigeon drakes were spotted at several locations, and we had close studies of stunning male Harlequin Ducks. All three scoter species and both Barrow's and Common goldeneyes were seen in excellent light, and we scoped several immaculate Long-tailed Duck drakes, their sharply pointed tails angling backward, as they floated on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There were memorable views of Hooded, Red-breasted, and Common mergansers, all at the seasonal peak of beauty. For the tour, we logged 32 species of waterfowl!
Bald Eagles of all age categories were a daily sight, often surprisingly conspicuous and numerous. At one spot along Boundary Bay in Canada, we counted 86 from one viewpoint. Red-tailed Hawks were ubiquitous throughout the tour, but an afternoon on the Samish Flats topped the viewing: we saw all three color morphs of the Western Red-tailed Hawk subspecies, including chestnut-breasted intermediate morphs, an all-chocolate-brown dark morph, and numerous light morphs, plus an adult Harlan's Red-tail which perched openly for careful study. Peregrine Falcons were seen every day of the tour; the most memorable were the two that simultaneously stooped on a flock of Dunlin, chasing the fleeing shorebirds for several minutes.
The aerobatic flocks of thousands of Dunlin were among the highlights of our trip, as they whirled in a variety of flock shapes and alternately showed their dark backs and then their reflective white undersides, which shone brightly in the winter sun.
On the ferry crossing to Victoria, British Columbia, a flock of Ancient Murrelets flew up right in front of the ferry, and then kept pace with the ferry for a moment or two—showing gray backs and black heads—before diving underwater directly from flight. Near Victoria, our experience with Sky Larks was superb. Even as we arrived at the site, Sky Larks were singing loudly overhead. Walking just a short distance along a path in the field, we flushed more Sky Larks at close range, then watched as others hovered low and high nearby, singing and fluttering their wings—a very satisfying encounter, both in sight and sound. Varied Thrushes provided another tour highlight, as we watched two beautifully marked males feeding at close range on a roadside on the Olympic Peninsula.
WINTER WASHINGTON & BRITISH COLUMBIA
February 2-9, 2008
With Bob Sundstrom
$2340 from Seattle
SOUTHERN BRITAIN: BIRDS & HISTORY
By Peter Roberts
Although we have operated this unique tour for 10 years, we still find new birds and interesting places every year. The 130+ species seen is about average, though it varies much more each year with this tour than any other in Europe, because the amount of birding versus history varies with the interests of each year's participants. Being based at just one location for all 10 nights on this 50-50 mix of birds and historical visits is always greatly appreciated by our groups, who really enjoy not having to pack and repack. And the "eat what you want, when you want" approach for all meals is a great bonus!
The weather during our 2006 tour was more classically "British," with some good, warm, and sunny weather mixed with rain and cool—often all within the space of an afternoon or morning. But we managed to dodge all the really wet spells by rescheduling our program for indoor events when the weather was poor.
The huge complex of Hampton Court Palace is always our first port of call after meeting at the airports. This must surely be one of England's greatest buildings, full of references to Henry VIII and later monarchs, and all set in immaculately kept ornate gardens where our birding account was opened with such exotica as Egyptian Goose and Rose-ringed Parakeet—introduced species, but with large, viable feral populations. Henry the VIII was one of England's most notorious kings, and he pops up often in our historic ventures.
Hever Castle is a small, superbly picturesque place full of history, priceless heirlooms, paintings, and furniture. It is famed as the family home 400+ years ago to Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, and the first to lose her head in the process! I arranged an exclusive and private tour for our group before the public was let in—a real bonus to be shown this gem in an unhurried way. This year, as usual, was a lovely intertwined mix of birding and history with close-up nesting Great Crested Grebes on the ornamental ponds and Goldcrests, Eurasian Nuthatches, and Treecreepers in the beautiful surrounding parklands. Henry in fighting mood was amply displayed in our visit to the squat, formidable battle station of Deal Castle—superbly engineered and built in just one year to repel an anticipated invasion of the French that never materialized.
Invasions (most of which never actually happened!) were another recurring theme of this tour. Apart from visiting the sites of successful invasions by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and, of course, the Normans in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings (the last successful invasion of Britain), we also pondered numerous fortifications to repel the French at various periods through history, and latterly the Germans in both World Wars. All of this was in great birding country and at a good time of year for migrants.
Our day-trip to France was an eclectic mix of birds and history, those huge German gun emplacements still sending a shiver down the spine. The birds were great with Zitting Cisticola added to our trip list and Snowy Plovers with chicks especially pleasing to see. On our full day of birding at Minsmere we tried hard for Great Bittern, but were unlucky; our consolation was obtaining good looks at the rare Dartford Warblers on scenic Dunwich Heath and stunning scope views of the tiny, jewel-like Common Kingfisher. We also had magnificent looks at Water Rail—normally very skulking.
But perhaps the best birding experience of our tour was a private visit to a friend's bird-banding station. Keeping a flexible approach to what we did each day allowed us to opt for the best early morning weather to visit this very special place, experience the thrill of seeing a whole array of small migrants in the hand, and learn about the place, migration, and the species. This year, apart from no less than eight warbler species (including scarce Grasshopper Warblers), there was a splendid little Bearded Reedling. However, "Bird of the Trip" status went to a phenomenal Eurasian Wryneck, caught and showing beautifully how it got its name. The bird made various sinuous, snake-like writhing movements—literally "wrying its neck"! Nobody is quite sure why it does this—perhaps a defense response—but it is weird and totally unique! For sheer potential rarity value, I suppose Great White Pelican must take the number one position. We heard about this on the local birder's hotline and saw it well. Whenever this species has been seen in the UK it has been dismissed as "escaped." This individual was one of several wandering Western Europe after exceptional weather in eastern European breeding grounds, and it may be the first accepted record for the UK.
Apart from the great historical sites and exciting birding moments, I am sure it is often the simpler things such as driving down winding country lanes, picturesque unspoilt villages with ancient churchyards and half timbered houses dating back centuries, and soaking up the atmosphere of London with all its amazing history and architecture at every turn that gave much pleasure. I look forward to leading the next tour on my "home-patch" of Southern England.
August 3-14, 2008
With Peter Roberts and a local leader
$4195 from London
AUSTIN, TEXAS BIRDING AND NATURE FESTIVAL
April 9-13, 2008
Austin is the state capital of Texas and home to the University of Texas, the famed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Lydon B. Johnson Library, a thriving cultural scene, and the VENT office. Mid-April is a beautiful time to be in Texas, and this event offers the opportunity to visit several important ecosystems in the Austin area during spring migration.
Our itinerary includes three days of field trips and evening programs, as well as an optional visit to the VENT office. We will see the two great Texas Hill Country specialty birds, the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, in addition to a host of other migrant shorebirds and songbirds, wildflowers, and other forms of natural history. For a grand finale we will view a colony of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats as they emerge over the city in the early evening.
For those who would like to spend more time in Texas, our festival can be combined with our Spring in South Texas tour, our King Ranch & Whooping Cranes tour, and/or our High Island tour.
April 9-13, 2008
With Victor Emanuel, Kenn Kaufman, Barry Lyon, Brennan Mulrooney, Michael O'Brien, David Wolf, and Kevin Zimmer
$1995 from Austin
March 29-April 9, 2008
With Barry Zimmer and Kevin Zimmer
$3565 from Corpus Christi (ends in San Antonio)
April 5-9, 2008
With Kim Eckert and TBA
$1495 from Corpus Christi
April 13-17, 2008
With Brennan Mulrooney and David Wolf
$1175 from Houston
SOUTH FLORIDA AND THE DRY TORTUGAS
By Brennan Mulrooney
The first day of our 2007 South Florida tour was one to remember. I knew from the outset that we had the chance to see a lot of great birds, including several that we might not see again during the rest of the tour. So there was a bit of trepidation mixed with our excitement as we set out that morning.
Our first stop was a quick check to see if we could locate the last chaseable Smooth-billed Anis left in Florida. They hadn't been seen for a few weeks, so I wasn't too surprised when we came up dry. I quickly refocused the group on the next task, locating a Western Spindalis (a rare visitor from the Bahamas) that had been frequenting a nearby cemetery. As we entered the neighborhood of the cemetery, we were stopped by a fly-by pair of Spot-breasted Orioles! I quickly parked the van and we all piled out, trying to keep our eyes on them. After several minutes of searching, we finally tracked them down in a gumbo limbo tree. We were getting great views when somebody asked, "Hey, isn't that the Spindalis?" And it was! We watched it for a brief moment and then the orioles chased it off. Though we had seen the bird land in a mango tree nearby, several minutes of waiting proved fruitless. And then it started to rain. I decided to run back for the van so we could wait out the rain shower and resume our search later, but by the time I returned with the van everybody was smiling and giving me thumbs up! As it turns out, the bird had emerged from the mango tree and sat out in the open at close range, allowing everybody fantastic views.
With our main morning target out of the way so quickly, I decided to try a nearby park where I had recently seen multiple Snail Kites. This bird can be difficult some years so I wanted to try early as insurance. Not only did we find three Snail Kites, but they were accompanied by a huge concentration of wading birds. We had 50 or more Wood Storks, large numbers of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored and Little Blue herons, and several Purple Swamphens. The Swamphen is an introduced species (resembling a Purple Gallinule on steroids) that is rapidly expanding its range in South Florida and may soon be considered countable. To top it off, sitting out in the middle of the marsh with all the other birds was an immature Bald Eagle—what a sight!
Our next stop, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, was for many the highlight of the tour. This water reclamation facility (i.e. sewage pond) has become a must-see for birders visiting South Florida, and we saw plenty to justify this reputation. As we walked the boardwalk over the ponds, we were treated to an unforgettable show from several species of marsh birds that are usually much more difficult to observe. It all started with knockout looks at Purple Gallinule. This is one of the prettiest birds in North America, and to have one crawling around in the bulrushes and fire flag not 20 feet from us was quite a treat. We would see several more before we completed our circuit. Next it was a Sora, again right out in the open and so close we almost couldn't focus our binoculars on it.
Soon our attention was drawn away by a group of photographers all in a cluster with their lenses pointed at a patch of bulrushes. We were astonished to find out that they were watching three fledgling Least Bitterns that had just emerged from their hidden nest and were periodically being fed by both parents! Again we were getting incredible views of a species that is usually very secretive and difficult to observe. From less than 20 feet away we watched as tiny, awkward, fluffy young tested their wobbly legs and scrambled to be fed when a parent would return; it was truly mind-blowing. After that, the nests full of Anhingas and other herons and egrets were just icing on the cake, but we really put the cherry on the top with a Limpkin that spoke up just as we were leaving. With a little effort and patience we were able to get excellent scope views as it sat quietly preening in the marsh.
Over the next eight days of birding we tallied a tremendous list of quality birds including Great White Heron (the white morph of Great Blue Heron), Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed Kite (20+ in one day), Short-tailed Hawk (light and dark morphs), Crested Caracara, Piping Plover, White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani (we found two on a second visit), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Black-whiskered Vireo, Florida Scrub-Jay, Cave Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, "Cuban Yellow Warbler" (a subspecies of Yellow Warbler, also known as Golden Warbler), Bachman's Sparrow, Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow (an endangered subspecies of Seaside Sparrow), and both Bronzed and Shiny cowbirds. It was quite a trip, but that first day was a doozy!
Every birder has to visit the Dry Tortugas at least once. These islands are on par with areas like Southeast Arizona, South Texas, High Island, Point Pelee, or Cape May—areas that you can always talk about with other birders, because chances are they've either already been there, or they are planning to go. And they go for three main reasons: Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy all have their only North American nesting colonies on the Dry Tortugas; it can be a fantastic spot to witness concentrations of migrant birds; and it also has quite a reputation for turning up rarities. While the breeding birds are somewhat of a sure thing, we were very fortunate on this year's trip to experience great success on the other two counts, plus we had fantastic pelagic birding on the way there!
April 21-May 1, 2008
With Brennan Mulrooney and TBA
$2795 from Fort Lauderdale (ends in Key West)
April 30-May 3, 2008
With Brennan Mulrooney
$1195 from Key West
CLASSIC CHINA: HONG KONG & SICHUAN
By Dion Hobcroft
Our 2007 Classic China tour was outstandingly successful, as we birded some of the most spectacular and species-rich forests in central China in unparalleled comfort. New hotels and highways, and the ever helpful and friendly local people ensured a smooth tour. We also experienced some rustic hotels, hiked up into the mountains into bamboo and rhododendron forests, and explored the Tibetan Plateau with its thousands of yaks and Tibetan cowboys. The modernization taking place in China is proceeding at an unbelievable pace. I was constantly remarking to the group about a new tunnel, highway, hotel, statue, or cable car—and all of these differences in just 12 months! Many participants ranked our trip amongst their best ever birding tours.
The birds were simply phenomenal; we connected with so many of the rarest, most spectacular, and most elusive species China has to offer. Better environmental protection, including a ban on rifle hunting, is having an enormously beneficial impact on mammals and large birds. We observed 15 species of mammals and 9 pheasants and partridges on this tour.
Our day in Hong Kong produced 78 species. At Tai Po Kau in the morning it was hard to beat the Streak-throated Scimitar-Babbler, Scarlet Minivet, and superb studies of Hainan Blue-Flycatcher and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch that kicked off our tour so well. Although we had a poor tide at Mai Po, we enjoyed a great Chinese Egret and flocks of striking White-winged Black Terns. It is a shame it has become so difficult to get flexible group access to this location. Our afternoon at the new Hong Kong Wetland Centre produced more good birds including White-winged Starling and a superb White-bellied Sea-Eagle, and we finished at Tsim Bei Tsui with a Large Hawk-Cuckoo in the telescope.
The bustling city of Cheng Du turned up some good sightings on our first afternoon in a bamboo city park. Although busy with people enjoying mah-jong and sunflower seeds, the park came through with Vinous-throated Parrotbill, super Black-throated Tits, and some very tame Chinese Grosbeaks, with a migrant Radde's Warbler and Purple-backed Starling—both good sightings. A visit to the Leshan Buddha, a memorable experience in itself, also provided sightings of many species with a migrant Brown Hawk-Owl (now split as Northern Boobook) roosting over the Buddha's head a major bonus, and an exceptional view of a Chinese Bamboo-Partridge.
Our Sichuan forest birding commenced at Emei Shan, the sacred Buddhist peak at the crossroads of Chinese bird distribution. The Golden Summit was shrouded in fog and persistent rain; it was quite a difficult day, but we came through with some good sightings. The Wannian Monastery was highlighted by a Chinese Blue Flycatcher singing its heart out right next to us, plus a skulking Hwamei. An afternoon at Wuxiangang turned up Little Forktail, Drongo Cuckoo, and Brown Dipper.
Our next move was to Wawu Shan—a must-visit superb forest birding location. On the summit we found Gray-hooded and Fulvous (amongst my top 10 birds in the world) parrotbills and the recently described Sichuan Treecreeper. Lower down, the mountain was alive with the endemic Emei Liocichla, Golden Parrotbills, the scarce Emei Leaf-Warbler, and unforgettable Lady Amherst's Pheasants. What a bird! As if this weren't enough, we had excellent views of the rare Rusty Laughingthrush, a stunning male Silver Pheasant, and a great view of a tufted deer.
We returned to Cheng Du where an afternoon spent with the giant pandas at a breeding center enabled us to get up close with this most charismatic vegetarian carnivore. There was also a superb Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, always a glamour bird. And our night at the Sichuan Opera was a highlight of the tour, especially the shadow puppet master, who gave me goose bumps.
Our next destination was the famous Wolong Biosphere Reserve. Unfortunately, a massive road-mending operation had perhaps 10,000 people working along the road, dynamiting and generally destroying any chance for quality roadside birding. We all made the trek up to the Wuyipeng Research Camp, and although the set-up was pretty basic, we were warm and well-fed, and woke up in superb bamboo forests. Plenty of good birds here included scarce endemics like the elusive Barred Laughingthrush and Firethroat, but it was the male and female Temminck's Tragopan we found roosting that stole the show. The next morning we had another view of the male tragopan, plus a bunch of great birds ranging from Chestnut-headed Tesia to Fire-capped Tit. We heard golden snubnose monkey in the distance and a Siberian weasel ran up to the group.
Due to the road-mending I changed our itinerary, cutting a night from Wolong crossing the Balan Shan Pass, and spending a night at Rilong. This worked out brilliantly; the following day, on the drive to Hong Yuan, was one of the great birding days of a great tour. We kicked off with Long-tailed Rosefinch, a pair of wild boar, Hill Pigeons, and a bunch of redstarts. Next we found nesting Wallcreepers and enjoyed point-blank repeated views as both parents came in to feed the chicks. At Mengbi Shan one of the first birds we focused on was a pair of Sichuan Jays, followed by a Blood Pheasant preceded by a Lammergeier. We were definitely on a roll. As we ascended the Tibetan Plateau, I stopped the bus for a Black Stork beside the road. When we filed out of the bus, the stork took off, only to be replaced by a Black-necked Crane. Wow!
After peering into dense bamboo in Wolong and battling with skulkers, everyone loved birding on the plateau. We stopped constantly for new birds, from the huge Upland Buzzard to the huge Tibetan Lark, Eurasian Wryneck, Ferruginous Duck, glowing Citrine Wagtails, Little Owl, Tibetan Snowfinch, and the odd Hume's Groundpecker. The next morning we made an additional excursion to Daba Lake. What a treat! In perfect weather a major pika population boom attracted dozens of raptors including Steppe Eagles and Saker Falcons. The pika burrows provided refuge for nesting White-rumped Snowfinch, while the wetlands held numerous interesting birds from Red-crested Pochard, breeding-plumaged Mongolian Plover, Spotted Redshank, and White-winged Black Terns.
Jiuzhaighou is a simply stunning World Heritage Reserve with mirror lakes, Himalayan peaks, and vast boreal forests. Although the birding here was slower (and the park full of tourists), it still provided many special sightings including scarce endemics like Blue Eared-Pheasant, Sukatschev's Laughingthrush, Chinese Nuthatch, Slaty Bunting, Pere David's Tit, and the remarkable Three-banded Rosefinch. We found some other good birds including both Black and Chinese Three-toed woodpeckers.
Wending our way back to Chengdu, we made one last stop at Mount Qing Cheng. Our morning produced some good birds with Red-billed Starling the major highlight.
May 8-31, 2008
With Dion Hobcroft and David Bishop
$8735 from Hong Kong
GRAND NEW MEXICO
By Barry Zimmer
SPECIAL NOTE: Our 2008 tour will be co-led by Barry Zimmer and Steve Hilty.
I always like to begin a tour report with a description of the most captivating moment of the tour: a sighting of a hard-to-find bird that blows your socks off, or one of those memorable moments that really stand out and grab you. So with that in mind, I should start with the absolutely stunning male Olive Warbler near Silver City that came down low in a small ponderosa pine tree right next to the road. It was literally within ten feet of our group. For well over five minutes it foraged and sang at almost eye level. Of course, it would be hard to single that out as the premier moment when just a few minutes later we had a mixed species flock with gorgeous Red-faced Warblers, equally brilliant Painted Redstarts, Grace's and Black-throated Gray warblers, Magnificent Hummingbird, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, and Plumbeous Vireo all in view at once.
Hmmm, if not the Olive Warbler, then surely it was the male Blue Grouse near Santa Fe that strutted about through the aspens and firs, showing off every field mark for our group. This phantom of the forest is missed more often than not and is generally hard to see throughout its range. The grouse was nearly overshadowed an hour later by the male Pine Grosbeak that hopped about on the ground by the side of the road, and then flew up to eye level on a small spruce and sat for several minutes. This incredibly striking species is the one that got me started birding, and many people in our group listed it as their favorite bird of the tour.
So let me think—not the Olive Warbler, not the Blue Grouse. Oh, I know, it must have been the family of American Dippers feeding in the crystal-clear waters along The Catwalk. With three babies in tow, the parents repeatedly dove down in the pools of water below us, swimming about underwater not unlike an alcid, and returning to the surface with a small goodie to stuff into one of the bright orange gaping mouths awaiting them. Yes, that certainly was a great highlight, and yet it was somewhat overshadowed by the noisy flock of Pinyon Jays a short while later along the highway, and, after that, the fly-catching Lewis's Woodpeckers that we studied for 15 minutes in the scope. Boy, it's getting hard to pick just one moment.
The tiny Elf Owl that eluded us for some time before posing nicely in a cottonwood right over our heads certainly got a big gasp from the group. This species has always been one of my favorites, but was it really better than the pair of Western Screech-Owls the night before that we eventually walked away from? Or, for that matter, the Whip-poor-will at 30 feet just above eye level, singing its heart out while we enjoyed scope-filled views?
Raptors definitely deserve consideration. From the incredible Zone-tailed Hawk perched on the ground right next to the road eating a ground squirrel to the two wonderful Common Black-Hawks that soared lazily overhead, to the majestic Prairie Falcon near Apache Springs, we had our share of great raptor sightings. But I'm not sure one stands out above the others. I would have to consider the surprise sighting of four Black Swifts as a top moment, and what about our nine species of woodpeckers? With two male Three-toeds seen very well, and a stunning male Williamson's Sapsucker, we can't forget that group. And colorful birds? How about the Lazuli Buntings, Vermilion Flycatchers, three species of orioles, and three tanagers? Possibly the three Gray Vireos in view at once with a singing Black-chinned Sparrow in practically the same field of view? This is just too difficult.
I haven't even mentioned the bird chosen as the favorite of the tour. One night, as we were beginning our owling excursion, a Virginia Rail sounded off in a marsh some distance away. I figured we had no chance of seeing it, but played some tape just in case. The rail came in on the run like a rocket and walked right up to our group, stopping just feet away to check us out. It stood in our light for a minute before disappearing via the same route in which it came. Momentary slack-jawed silence was followed by high fives and applause. Yes, this was definitely the most memorable moment of our tour. No doubt about it…or was it that Olive Warbler?
May 26-June 5, 2008
With Barry Zimmer and Steve Hilty
$3360 from El Paso (ends in Albuquerque)