Independent Birding in Ecuador, September 2019

Golden Tanager
Golden Tanager – a common bird in the mid-elevation cloud forests around Mindo.

Most birders visit Ecuador as part of an organized tour, and most of the online trip reports are either from tour guide leaders or their clients. There is nothing wrong with that – a lot of this information is very good. However, there are far fewer resources available for those who want to “go it alone” and bird Ecuador independently, so I hope that this report is especially useful for those who don’t want to shell out the big bucks for a tour.

Golden-naped Tanager2
Golden-naped Tanager

The difficult part of birding Ecuador is not the infrastructure, nor the travel logistics. The area around which I centered my trip – the Mindo Valley – lies within easy reach of the international airport in Quito. The main roads are smooth and well-engineered, and (I am told) much improved in recent years. Even the dirt roads – while rough and steep in places – can be tackled in a regular two-wheel-drive car. Accommodation is plentiful and inexpensive. Nothing about Ecuador would pose a problem for anyone with prior overseas independent birding experience – it is a good deal less challenging than many Asian destinations, for example.

Blue-throated Tanager
Blue-throated Tanager, yet another common and stunning tanager.

However, speaking as someone who has birded in 56 countries – and with some fairly serious international birding trips under my belt – take it from me that nowhere have I more acutely felt the lack of a local, knowledgeable guide than in Ecuador. Let me explain. Cloud forests are not easy places to bird – the trees are high, and the weather is regularly gloomy and misty. Add to that a huge and staggeringly diverse avifauna, and enormous mixed flocks that pass quickly through at treetop height, and you can start to understand how frustrating the birding experience can be in Ecuador – even for someone with broad experience in a number of other nearby countries (I’ve birded Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras fairly extensively so I am familiar with many of the Neotropical bird families).

Red-headed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet

For the first couple of days, I was identifying barely a handful of species in each mixed flock, and at times it felt like I was spending more time leafing through my field guide than watching the birds! My advice to the independent birder would be to buy a field guide well in advance of your trip, and spend a lot of time reading the guide and trying to nail down the ID of species you are likely to encounter. And even if you do that, you will probably still feel completely out of your depth for several days.

On the other hand, many of the reserves and lodges maintain feeding stations with as many as 12-15 hummingbird species buzzing around, and colorful tanagers coming down to feed at eye level and close range. Spending time at these feeding stations is a good way to build familiarity with some of the more commonly seen species.

Golden-crowned Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Flycatcher at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

The trip logistics were as follows:

Planning: I purchased the bang-up-to-date “Birds of Ecuador” field guide, recently published by Helm. This is a very comprehensive and portable guide to all the birds recorded in Ecuador – some 1,630 species. A Kindle edition of this guide is available, but I much prefer the “old school” paper version to take into the field.

While I was satisfied with the guide overall, I have a few reservations. First, having a guide that covers the entire country brings some confusion to the mix for a first-time Ecuador birder who is covering just a small area. If you can find a more localized guide to the birds of northwest Ecuador, this would provide a useful supplement to the Helm guide.

Second, some of the bird illustrations in the Helm guide didn’t seem accurate to me. This was a problem on several occasions, when I had great looks at what I figured would be an easy bird to identify – and then couldn’t find it anywhere in the guide. I had to resort to online images to get to the bottom of several IDs of birds which to my eye were inaccurately illustrated. I found this to be true of several flycatchers in particular. Admittedly part of this is due to my lack of skill with Ecuadorian birds, but I feel that the field guide must bear some of the blame too.

As well as reading the Helm guide, and researching online trip reports, I also spent a while on eBird checking out different hotspots in the areas I was planning to visit. A good way to form an itinerary would be to combine information from trip reports with the latest reports from eBird to help target any particular species.

Buff-tailed Coronet
Buff-tailed Coronet – a species I saw only at Refugio Paz de las Aves.

Flight: I live in Houston so there are plentiful flights to South America. Direct flights on United from Houston to Quito take only about 5 hours, but they arrive in the middle of the night, and I didn’t want to turn up at night in an unfamiliar country. With hindsight, and knowing how easy it was, I would not have had a problem turning up at night, renting a car and driving off down the road.

I found a flight with AeroMexico via Mexico City which was not only considerably cheaper than the United flight (about $550 vs. $720, round trip), but also arrived in Quito at around 6.00am – perfect timing, or so I thought, to get there in daylight, grab a rental car, hit the road, and be at the Yanacocha Reserve while it was still early enough for some great birding. More on how that turned out later!

Glossy Flowerpiercer
Glossy Flowerpiercer

Car rental: I had been wondering about whether to rent a car, or whether to take a bus from the airport to Mindo, base myself there, and travel out by taxi to the various birding lodges and reserves in the area.

A quick trawl through the internet reveals the usual horror stories of renting a car – a lot of the advice seems to come down to “don’t do it!”. But the seasoned driver has nothing to fear from car rental in Ecuador, and I am very glad I decided to go ahead and rent a car for the greater flexibility, convenience, and – over the course of the week – much lower costs compared to taking taxis.

Avis seemed to have the least bad reviews of a bad bunch at the airport. I found their service to be very good. In common with many developing countries, they go over the car with a fine tooth comb when you pick it up, and note down every small scratch. I didn’t damage my car, so I didn’t find out what would happen if they had found a new scratch when I returned it!

Note that most Ecuadorian rental cars are manual (“stick shift” to Americans). You should assume you will be given a manual car unless you specifically book an automatic. With the steep roads and long mountain passes, a manual is by far the best choice anyway, assuming you are able to drive one.

Another feature of Ecuadorian car rental is that many rental contracts specify a daily kilometer limit – usually 100km per day. I was given the option at the rental desk to upgrade to unlimited km for an additional $11 per day, which I declined. Northwest Ecuador is compact, and although driving times can sometimes be long on slow roads, distances are not far. As it turned out I did go slightly over my allocated mileage for the week. The charge was $0.25 for each excess kilometer, and in the end I paid an extra $20 in total, a lot less than the upgrade to unlimited kilometers would have cost.

I had pre-booked the cheapest possible car, a tiny Chevrolet Spark 1.0, via an online consolidator for around $180 in total for the 8 days. I reserved and paid for the car using my Chase Mileage Plus credit card because it includes CDW and LDW insurance as primary coverage. Not many credit cards have this feature, so this one is an excellent option for overseas car rentals. I did, however, opt to add the maximum liability insurance coverage at the rental desk, making the total cost of my rental around $260.

At the rental desk, I was offered the chance to upgrade my tiny vehicle to a more robust and powerful one. The difference in price didn’t seem worth it, and I am glad I stuck with my Spark – although it was a little under-powered on the long mountain passes, it handled all kinds of rough dirt roads and steep slopes without any issues. If I was traveling with a companion or an extra suitcase, it may have been a different story.

Gas (petrol) in Ecuador is very cheap – even less than the US – and my tiny car hardly used any of it, I spent a total of about $35 on gas for my whole visit. Compared to the US, there are few gas stations – for example after leaving the outskirts of Quito on the E20, heading over the Papallacta pass, there is no gas for 86km until you reach Baeza, so make sure you fill up whenever you can.

Black-capped Tanager
Black-capped Tanager

Driving: All the main roads I encountered were smooth, well-graded, and lightly trafficked. The highway from the airport to Quito, and the long pass to Papallacta, are particularly excellent. The back roads vary in quality, many are all-weather dirt roads but all the ones I used were all passable in my Chevrolet Spark.

Accommodation: I had booked Sachatamia Lodge in advance for the first two nights of my trip, to ease me into Ecuador and give me a comfortable place to aim at from the airport. For nights 3-6, I moved into a cheaper private room in Cinnamon House, an excellent hostel in Mindo town. Night 7 was spent in Papallacta, and the final night in an airport hotel ready for my early morning flight the next day.

I reserved all of the above places on Booking.com, and none of them required prepayment – it was a “cash on arrival” kind of deal. There is a large range of accommodation options, especially in the Mindo area – everything from upmarket luxury lodges to hostel dorms, and the independent traveler is unlikely to encounter any problems finding somewhere to stay.

Sachatamia Lodge: A well-located, comfortable lodge situated just off the main Quito to San Miguel de los Bancos road, close to the Mindo turn-off. Being at the top of the hill above Mindo, it had a noticeably different avifauna compared to Mindo town. This lodge has several trails, excellent feeding stations for tanagers and hummingbirds, and even a blind overlooking a moth trap which was interesting for forest species in the early mornings when they came to eat the moths.

My comfortable room was $65 per night, putting Sachatamia Lodge firmly at the low-budget end of the spectrum for out-of-town bird lodges. A very good breakfast was included, and the dinner menu had plenty of variety and was priced at around $11-$18 for a main course.

Cinnamon House: A basic but clean and comfortable private room, with private bathroom and balcony, was $25 per night. This is a super-friendly hostel geared up to the younger, solo traveler. There is a kitchen so you can self-cater, although the grocery stores in Mindo town stock only the basics.

El Fogon Campero: This budget hotel is on the road to the hot springs in Papallacta. I had prebooked on Booking.com but they seemed surprised when I turned up, and no one else was staying there. My final bill for room and dinner was $26. Nights are cold at this altitude, but my room was well-equipped with blankets and a space heater.

Hostal Mariscal Sucre: This hotel is very close to the airport and costs $25 a night. I wasn’t given a key when I checked in, and when I asked at reception they couldn’t find one for my room, so I had to leave the room unlocked when I went out to dinner. I guess they are used to people just turning up, crashing for the night, and leaving the next morning without needing a key. It was a perfectly functional night halt although there is nowhere to eat in the evening within walking distance (but a very good Italian-owned pizza restaurant is a short drive away).

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin, a common and highly distinctive hummingbird.

Food: Sometimes I had lunch if it fitted in with birding (for example at Mirador Rio Blanco in San Miguel de los Bancos, where I could eat while watching Rufous-throated Tanagers at the feeders). Otherwise, I subsisted during the day on protein bars, trail mix, apples, and boiled eggs, some of which I brought from home. Coffee is widely available.

Mindo town has a reasonable choice of restaurants for dinner, I particularly recommend the Dragonfly Inn just next to the bridge as you come into town. If I find somewhere I like, I tend to eat there for every meal, purely for convenience – this was after all a birding and not a gastronomic trip.

Money: Ecuador uses the US Dollar as its currency, but with more coins – they have a 50 cent coin, and $1 coins typically replace dollar bills here. I took about $500 in cash in a variety of bills with me. There are also ATMs available in towns which accept foreign credit and debit cards.

Weather: This is a cloud forest region and the weather is unpredictable. The main enemies of the birder are fog and low cloud, which occurred frequently during my trip especially in the afternoons, and of course rain. Persistent rain was only really a problem on one day of my trip, with occasional showers at other times. Bird activity was noticeably higher on cloudy days versus sunny ones. Up at 13,000+ feet ASL at the Papallacta Pass, you can expect the default weather conditions to be cold, foggy, and drizzly, even in the early mornings.

Thick-billed Euphonia
Thick-billed Euphonia

Itinerary: I had a broad plan to follow a tour company’s itinerary for the Mindo area which I had found online, making small tweaks based on the fact that I was staying in a different lodge to them. But I didn’t stick to my plan, and instead ended up using it as a “rough guide” to the best places to visit for the widest variety of birds. Be prepared to change course at short notice and be flexible due to weather conditions. On several afternoons, I ended up at the (very birdy) Yellow House Trails in Mindo when rain and fog had closed in on the surrounding hills.

Daily Overview:

Saturday 21st September Morning: Drive from airport via the old Mindo “Eco Ruta” and Alambi Lodge. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Sunday 22nd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge then Mindo village area. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Monday 23rd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Tuesday 24th September Morning: Rio Silanche then Mirador Rio Blanco for lunch. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Wednesday 25th September Morning: Refugio Paz de las Aves. Afternoon: Milpe Bird Sanctuary.

Thursday 26th September All day: Rio Silanche.

Friday 27th September Morning: Old Mindo Road (Eco Ruta) then Yanacocha Reserve. Afternoon: Drive to Papallacta.

Saturday 28th September Morning: Papallacta Pass, then Papallacta village area. Afternoon: Guango Lodge and Laguna Papallacta.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmots

DAY ONE – Saturday 21st September: My flight arrived on time and the staff at the Avis rental desk were friendly and efficient. I was soon on the road towards Quito. Google maps served me pretty well getting me through the city and out into the hills on the other side, but unfortunately at that point it let me down.

Despite being near Quito, the Yanacocha Reserve is located in quite a remote area, and although the map appears to indicate three different ways to get there, there is in fact only one possible route from Quito. At first, Google took me up a private road to a hacienda, and my second attempt – approaching from the village of Nono – ended at a locked gate. I had somehow missed the sign at this spot: Google Maps Link. If you turn left (south) at this concealed turning, you should pick up signs all the way to the Yanacocha Reserve. The roads are pretty rough but passable with care in an ordinary car.

Having failed twice to get to Yanacocha, and with the best of the morning’s birding hours already behind me, I decided to press on towards Mindo via the “Eco Ruta” – the old Mindo road which gradually descends in altitude and eventually joins the main highway 28 near Tandayapa. This is a dirt road and takes an eternity to drive along. I stopped here and there, but the only notable bird was a Rufous-chested Tanager, my only one of the trip.

I got my first taste of some “feeder action” at the Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge, where I spent a couple of hours getting to grips with some of the more regular hummingbirds and tanagers. I saw nothing here that I didn’t commonly see elsewhere during the week, but it was a nice introduction to Mindoese bird life. Next door to the feeding station, a trout fishery and restaurant provided an excellent lunch stop and I was invited to eat with a father and son who had spent the morning fishing there – my first taste of Ecuadorian friendliness, hospitality – and of course, trout.

I found Sachatamia Lodge very easily thanks to a brand new sign along the highway. The weather was foggy and drizzly. A staff member named Johnny, who is a keen wannabe bird guide learning his trade, offered to show me a pair of roosting Crested Owls for $10, an offer I could hardly refuse! The rest of the afternoon was spent getting frustrated trying and failing to identify bird silhouettes in the gloom, but at least the hummingbird feeders at the lodge were busy with a nice variety of hummers of about 15 species including Booted Racket-tail, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Purple-throated Woodstar, Velvet-purple Coronet, and numbers of Violet-tailed Sylph.

Crested Owl
Crested Owls at their day roost along the river trail at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY TWO – Sunday 22nd September: I met with Johnny, and another couple of birders, at 6.00am outside the lodge, and a few minutes later we were seated in a hide overlooking a moth trap. Overnight, powerful lights are shone on a white tarpaulin, to which large numbers of moths are attracted. This is an excellent place to start the day as, even before it gets properly light, various forest-dwelling birds hang out there to enjoy a tasty moth breakfast.

Birds seen from this blind today and on subsequent mornings included Masked Trogon, Strong-billed, Spotted, and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, Scaly-throated and Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Gray-breasted Wood Wren, Flavescent and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Smoke-colored Pewee, and my first looks at exquisite Ornate Flycatchers which turned out to be common birds of the cloud forest.

Ornate Flycatcher
Ornate Flycatcher

As well as several short trails around the lodge itself, Sachatamia Lodge has one fairly long trail that descends all the way to a river. Along here I encountered goodies such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Club-winged Manakin, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Glistening-green and Metallic-green Tanagers – as well as the roosting Crested Owls which I saw daily once I had been shown where to look.

One notable visitor to the tanager feeding station near the Lodge was a Scrub Tanager, which I saw several days running. This is a highly unusual record for cloud forest at this altitude. This was also the only location where I saw the stunning Flame-faced Tanager during my trip.

Scrub Tanager
Scrub Tanager – a bird of high-altitude arid scrub, so completely out of place in mid-elevation cloud forest. This one visited the feeding station at Sachatamia Lodge for several days running.
Flame-faced Tanager
Flame-faced Tanager. I wish I had gotten a cleaner photo of this bird, but I guess the camera focus was confused by the incredibly vibrant colors.

I took a trip into Mindo at lunchtime to “scope out” the town and figure out where I was going to stay after I departed Sachatamia Lodge the following day. There was a Pale-legged Hornero along the dirt road to Cinnamon House, which I took to be a good omen so I decided to stay there.

I also stopped by at El Descanso Lodge, where $4 buys you a grandstand seat overlooking lots of hummingbird and tanager feeders. It was fun to watch but I didn’t add any new birds to my list here.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Strong-billed Woodcreeper at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

DAY THREE – Monday 23rd September: After birding at Sachatamia Lodge for the first five hours of daylight (70 species), I checked out and moved down the hill to Cinnamon House. In the afternoon, I spent a few hours on the Yellow House Trails on the outskirts of Mindo village. These trails often feature as one of the top spots to watch birds in the Mindo area – eBird shows that 397 species have been recorded there. The entrance fee is $6, but on the second day, the owner recognized me and I didn’t have to pay again.

The Yellow House Trails were far more extensive than I had been expecting, and quite a long uphill walk through suboptimal habitat is required before you even reach the trails proper. But the birds aren’t too choosy, and even on these lower stretches I encountered some great birds including Guayaquil Woodpecker, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, and Fawn-breasted and Swallow Tanagers. Further up in the forest, the highlights included Wattled and Crested Guans, Zeledon’s Antbird, and White-winged Tanager.

Bird activity at the Yellow House Trails seemed to stay relatively high throughout the afternoon, and another excellent reason to visit this location is that it is slightly lower and was therefore sheltered – on both of my afternoon visits – from the fog and rain which covered the surrounding hills.

Violet-tailed Sylph
Violet-tailed Sylph. Common at some of the feeding stations in the Mindo area and also seen occasionally in the forest at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY FOUR – Tuesday 24th September: I had been planning to visit the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, but I awoke to persistent rain in Mindo village, which only got worse as I climbed up the hill. When I got to the turnoff for Milpe, it was pouring with rain and visibility was just a few feet. It made no sense to attempt birding in such conditions, so I made the executive decision to continue driving to Rio Silanche, which at about 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level, was to be the lowest altitude place on my week’s itinerary.

I was hopeful that once I had descended from the hills, the rain would stop, but unfortunately this hypothesis turned out to be false! The rain continued all day, but at least the visibility was slightly better lower down the mountain.

After turning off the main highway 28, you reach the Rio Silanche reserve by driving a rather long, and in places rough, dirt road through areas of cleared forest, agricultural land, and secondary growth. Many tour groups have their best day in this general area in terms of the number of species seen, with up to 150 species regularly recorded in a day. I later learned the day record for the Rio Silanche area is around 180 species.

Entry to the reserve costs $12; when I arrived there was no one on site to take my money, so I paid on the way out. The Rio Silanche reserve features a canopy tower, which is an exciting place to be when a large mixed flock passes through. I spent several hours on the tower, but bird activity was low in the rainy conditions today.

The rarest birds of the morning were on the drive out; a pair of Groove-billed Anis, which I photographed – this species is found in other areas of Ecuador but is a little out of range here.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani along the road to Rio Silanche. An unexpected find. Several days later I found the more expected Smooth-billed Ani in exactly the same area.

With bird activity in the Rio Silanche reserve dying off in the late morning, and the rain showing no sign of abating, I cut my losses and drove back towards Mindo, stopping at the Mirador Rio Blanco restaurant in San Miguel de los Bancos. This is a great place to enjoy a meal in a warm, dry restaurant while watching the bird feeders through the windows. It is a known location for the scarce Rufous-throated Tanager, and I saw a pair of these lovely birds on several occasions as they came to feed on the fruit put out for them.

As previously noted, the Yellow House Trails in Mindo seem to have a slightly dryer microclimate, so this is where I went for the second afternoon in a row and once again enjoyed some good birding there.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager – a real stunner and a frequent sight at the Sachatamia Lodge feeding station.

DAY FIVE – Wednesday 25th September: The story of the Refugio Paz de las Aves is famous and probably needs little introduction for those who have visited, or are considering visiting, the Mindo area. The short version of the story is that a family located on a sprawling property in the hills outside Mindo have spent many years habituating various rare and reclusive forest birds to human contact. These individuals are fed daily and over a period of many months and years become tame. A visit to this sanctuary provides the only realistic opportunity to add semi-mythical species like the Giant Antpitta to ones list.

Giant Antpitta
Giant Antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves – a “must visit” on any itinerary in the Mindo area.

Today was probably the best day of my trip and this was largely down to luck. I had contacted the “Refugio Pas de las Aves” on WhatsApp several days prior and tried to book a tour, but had received no response. On Wednesday morning I decided to visit the refuge “on spec”. Shortly after dawn, as I neared the refuge on a dirt road, I saw a bunch of cars and tour buses parked beside the road. I spoke to a driver who indicated I should take a small side path. Turns out this was the location of an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek! I figured I could do worse than associate with the tour groups, and so it proved, with views of Lyre-tailed Nightjar and Giant Antpitta further up the road.

Andean COTR
Male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock at a lek. The birds were a little distant, high in the trees, and in poor light. Nonetheless, the lek was an entertaining spectacle!

Eventually I was approached by one of the members of the refuge “family”, Angel, who asked me what I was doing there. After I had told him the story of not getting a response to my messages, he allowed me to join the tour, which included breakfast at a cost of $35. This turned out to be money well spent, with 5 Antpitta species (Giant, Moustached, Chestnut-crowned, Ochre-breasted, and Yellow-breasted) seen and photographed. The Moustached and Ochre-breasted were at the same spot, but the other antpittas were spread all over the property in different locations.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Other great birds seen during the morning tour included Powerful Woodpecker, Dark-backed Wood-quail, Choco Daggerbill, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Blue-capped Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, and White-winged Brushfinch.

Powerful Woodpecker
Powerful Woodpecker
Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Crimson-rumped Toucanet at the Refugio Paz de las Aves feeding station.

I was lucky today but you are officially not allowed to visit the Refugio Paz de las Aves without a prior reservation, and they are often fully booked, especially at the weekends. So plan more carefully than I did and make sure you reserve this wonderful tour well in advance of your planned visit.

It would be hard to beat such a successful morning, and so I had a less spectacular but still very rewarding afternoon at the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (entry cost: $12). This is one of the area’s more famous hotspots, and on this cloudy afternoon was abuzz with bird activity and big mixed flocks throughout the time I was there.

Birds I saw at Milpe which I did not encounter anywhere else included Black-and-white Becard, Spotted Nightingale-thrush, and Golden-bellied Warbler. This was the day when I finally started to feel like I was getting familiar with many of the commoner mixed-flock species.

Green and Black Fruiteater
Green-and-black Fruiteater at Refugio Paz de las Aves. A real skulky stunner!

DAY SIX – Thursday 26th September: The weather looked a lot better when I woke up, so I decided to return to Rio Silanche for a second attempt at some lower-altitude species. I had a much more successful morning today, with 89 species observed between 7.00am and 3.30pm.

Again, luck had a big part to play today – I bumped into Alex Luna, a Tropical Birding guide, and his client, whom I had met the previous day at Refugio Paz de las Aves. Today I spent a while with them on the canopy tower at the Rio Silanche reserve, and came to realize just how useful an expert local guide can be in Ecuador!

Some of the birds that Alex picked out from the tower included Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, One-colored Becard, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and both Blue-whiskered and Scarlet-browed Tanagers. Many of these birds I would have been hard-pressed to find for myself, and I suspect they would not have made it to my list if it weren’t for Alex. We also had an Olive-sided Flycatcher – a familiar bird from “back home” which turned out to be an eBird flagged rarity here!

White-tailed Trogon2
Male White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche, a species I heard and saw several times there on my second visit.
White-tailed Trogon
Female White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche.

But I didn’t have absolutely everything handed to me by Alex on a plate, and I walked the loop trail alone several times and self-found some excellent birds including Little Tinamou, Rufous-fronted Wood-quail, White-bearded Manakin, multiple White-tailed Trogons, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Dusky-faced Tanager. On the drive out, a mixed flock of seedeaters included at least one male Black-and-white Seedeater outside of its usual altitude and range.

Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper at Rio Silanche.

DAY SEVEN – Friday 27th September: A very early start today. I packed up my bags and departed Cinnamon House, aiming to tackle the “Eco Ruta” before it got light, and hit the Yanacocha Reserve during peak morning birding hours.

Predictably – and as is normal for Ecuador – the drive took longer than planned. After getting slightly lost just once, I found the “short cut” up to Yanacocha from the Eco Ruta – which was steep and exciting in my under-powered car – and I finally pulled into the Yanacocha Reserve parking lot just before 9.00am.

This is a reserve that would warrant several visits to get the most from the trails and the potential birds here. It is a site for the very rare and poorly known Black-breasted Puffleg, which for the casual visitor would be an outside chance at best. Bird activity was fairly high at first, but once the clouds rolled in at around 11.00am, it slowed to almost zero. I had both Rufous and Tawny Antpittas along the main trail, and the hummingbird feeders here are famous for the magnificent Sword-billed Hummingbird, which showed reliably. Black-chested Mountain-Tanager and Golden-crowned Tanager were two really excellent birds I encountered here, but in fact most of the birds were new to me, due to the extreme change in altitude compared to Mindo.

Sword-billed Hummingbird
Sword-billed Hummingbird – an absolutely crazy-looking bird!

After the birding slowed, I made my way down the mountain, crossed through Quito, and continued along the excellent highway all the way to Papallacta. It was a clear afternoon, and the views across the snow-capped Andes mountains were simply breathtaking in places.

Tyrian Metaltail
Tyrian Metaltail – a common high-altitude hummer.

DAY EIGHT – Saturday 28th September: After spending the night at the Fogon Campero hotel in Papallacta, I awoke to a cold start, dressed in most of the clothes I had, and made my way to the top of Papallacta Pass for a stab at some of the true Andean high-altitude specialties.

The weather was chilly, foggy, and drizzly – as expected – but I still managed to see some of my target birds on my walk towards the radio antennas, including Andean Teal, Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, and Many-striped Canastero.

By mid-morning, with the weather closing in and visibility steadily getting worse, I decided to abandon the exposed pass and drove back down to Papallacta town where I found two eBird rarities – nothing exotic, just a Bank Swallow and a Western Wood-Pewee!

Continuing lower still – and finally getting below the rain and fog – I enjoyed several hours at the well-known Guango Lodge. This is a popular spot on the bird-tour circuit, and being on the eastern slope of the Andes, has a number of different species to the Mindo area in the west. Here, I added Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, Pearled Treerunner, Turquoise Jay, Mountain Cacique, and Black-eared and Black-capped Heminspingus, among others, to my list.

Tourmaline Sunangel
Tourmaline Sunangel at Guango Lodge.

With the weather eventually lifting in the late afternoon, and the sun making an appearance, I made a final stop at Laguna Papallacta, where I was adding birds to my trip list right up to the moment I left – such is the richness of Ecuadorian birdlife.

My final night in Ecuador was spent at an airport hotel before an early flight back to Houston (via Mexico City) the following morning.

Toucan Barbet
Toucan Barbet

Conclusion: Ecuador is an easy-to-navigate and exciting destination for visiting birders. The independent birder will likely see considerably fewer species, in total, than the birder on a guided tour. But this should be weighed against the greater fulfillment of finding and identifying birds for yourself, instead of having them pointed out to you by tour guides.

I look forward to returning for a second visit!

Trip list:

Total species seen: 278

# Species Location where first seen
1 Little Tinamou Rio Silanche–general area
2 Yellow-billed Pintail Laguna Papallacta
3 Andean Teal Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
4 Andean Guan Reserva Yanacocha
5 Crested Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
6 Wattled Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
7 Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail Rio Silanche–general area
8 Dark-backed Wood-Quail Refugio Paz de Las Aves
9 Rock Pigeon Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
10 Pale-vented Pigeon Mindo–Yellow House Trails
11 Ruddy Pigeon Rio Silanche–general area
12 Ecuadorian Ground Dove Rio Silanche–general area
13 White-tipped Dove Sachatamia Lodge
14 Eared Dove Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
15 Smooth-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
16 Groove-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
17 Squirrel Cuckoo Sachatamia Lodge
18 Lyre-tailed Nightjar Refugio Paz de Las Aves
19 White-collared Swift Sachatamia Lodge
20 Gray-rumped Swift Rio Silanche–general area
21 Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift Rio Silanche–general area
22 White-necked Jacobin Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
23 White-whiskered Hermit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
24 Tawny-bellied Hermit Sachatamia Lodge
25 Stripe-throated Hermit Rio Silanche–general area
26 Choco Daggerbill Refugio Paz de Las Aves
27 Brown Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
28 Lesser Violetear Sachatamia Lodge
29 Sparkling Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
30 Purple-crowned Fairy Rio Silanche–general area
31 Tourmaline Sunangel Guango Lodge
32 Green Thorntail Cinnamon House, Mindo
33 Speckled Hummingbird Guango Lodge
34 Long-tailed Sylph Guango Lodge
35 Violet-tailed Sylph Sachatamia Lodge
36 Tyrian Metaltail Nono Village Main Street
37 Glowing Puffleg Guango Lodge
38 Sapphire-vented Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
39 Golden-breasted Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
40 Shining Sunbeam Reserva Yanacocha
41 Brown Inca Sachatamia Lodge
42 Collared Inca Ecoruta–Alambi Valley (Nono-Tandayapa Road below 2500 m)
43 Buff-winged Starfrontlet Reserva Yanacocha
44 Mountain Velvetbreast Laguna Papallacta
45 Sword-billed Hummingbird Reserva Yanacocha
46 Great Sapphirewing Reserva Yanacocha
47 Buff-tailed Coronet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
48 Chestnut-breasted Coronet Guango Lodge
49 Velvet-purple Coronet Sachatamia Lodge
50 Booted Racket-tail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
51 Purple-bibbed Whitetip Sachatamia Lodge
52 Fawn-breasted Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
53 Green-crowned Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
54 Empress Brilliant Sachatamia Lodge
55 White-bellied Woodstar Sachatamia Lodge
56 Purple-throated Woodstar Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
57 Crowned Woodnymph Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
58 Andean Emerald Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
59 Purple-chested Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
60 Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
61 Violet-bellied Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
62 Slate-colored Coot Laguna Papallacta
63 Spotted Sandpiper Guango Lodge
64 Lesser Yellowlegs Laguna Papallacta
65 Andean Gull Laguna Papallacta
66 Snowy Egret Mindo–Yellow House Trails
67 Cattle Egret Sachatamia Lodge
68 Black Vulture Nono Village Main Street
69 Turkey Vulture Sachatamia Lodge
70 Hook-billed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
71 Swallow-tailed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
72 Roadside Hawk Rio Silanche–general area
73 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
74 Short-tailed Hawk Sachatamia Lodge
75 Crested Owl Sachatamia Lodge
76 Golden-headed Quetzal Sachatamia Lodge
77 White-tailed Trogon Rio Silanche–general area
78 Masked Trogon Sachatamia Lodge
79 Rufous Motmot Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
80 Broad-billed Motmot Rio Silanche–general area
81 White-whiskered Puffbird Rio Silanche–general area
82 Orange-fronted Barbet Rio Silanche–general area
83 Red-headed Barbet Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
84 Toucan Barbet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
85 Crimson-rumped Toucanet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
86 Collared Aracari Sachatamia Lodge
87 Yellow-throated Toucan Rio Silanche–general area
88 Choco Toucan Sachatamia Lodge
89 Black-cheeked Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
90 Smoky-brown Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
91 Red-rumped Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
92 Powerful Woodpecker Refugio Paz de Las Aves
93 Guayaquil Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
94 Golden-olive Woodpecker Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
95 Carunculated Caracara By pass Pifo, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.2335,-78.3266)
96 American Kestrel Reserva Yanacocha
97 Rose-faced Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
98 Red-billed Parrot Mindo–Yellow House Trails
99 Blue-headed Parrot Rio Silanche–general area
100 Bronze-winged Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
101 Maroon-tailed Parakeet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
102 Chestnut-fronted Macaw Rio Silanche–general area
103 White-flanked Antwren Rio Silanche–general area
104 Slaty Antwren Milpe Bird Sanctuary
105 Zeledon’s Antbird Mindo–Yellow House Trails
106 Giant Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
107 Moustached Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
108 Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
109 Yellow-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
110 Rufous Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
111 Tawny Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
112 Ochre-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
113 Plain-brown Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
114 Wedge-billed Woodcreeper Milpe Bird Sanctuary
115 Strong-billed Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
116 Spotted Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
117 Streak-headed Woodcreeper Rio Silanche–general area
118 Montane Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
119 Plain Xenops Rio Silanche–general area
120 Pale-legged Hornero Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
121 Chestnut-winged Cinclodes Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
122 Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
123 Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
124 Lineated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
125 Streak-capped Treehunter Refugio Paz de Las Aves
126 Striped Woodhaunter Rio Silanche–general area
127 Pearled Treerunner Reserva Yanacocha
128 Andean Tit-Spinetail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
129 White-browed Spinetail Reserva Yanacocha
130 Many-striped Canastero Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
131 White-chinned Thistletail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
132 Red-faced Spinetail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
133 Slaty Spinetail Mindo–Yellow House Trails
134 White-bearded Manakin Rio Silanche–general area
135 Club-winged Manakin Sachatamia Lodge
136 Green-and-black Fruiteater Refugio Paz de Las Aves
137 Andean Cock-of-the-rock Refugio Paz de Las Aves
138 Black-crowned Tityra Rio Silanche–general area
139 Cinnamon Becard Mindo–Yellow House Trails
140 Black-and-white Becard Milpe Bird Sanctuary
141 One-colored Becard Rio Silanche–general area
142 Streak-necked Flycatcher Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
143 Slaty-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
144 Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant Milpe Bird Sanctuary
145 Common Tody-Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
146 Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
147 Cinnamon Flycatcher Guango Lodge
148 Ornate Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
149 Brown-capped Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
150 Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet Mindo–Yellow House Trails
151 White-tailed Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
152 White-banded Tyrannulet Reserva Yanacocha
153 White-throated Tyrannulet Laguna Papallacta
154 Yellow Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
155 Greenish Elaenia Rio Silanche–general area
156 Torrent Tyrannulet Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
157 Choco Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
158 Flavescent Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
159 Olive-sided Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
160 Smoke-colored Pewee Sachatamia Lodge
161 Western Wood-Pewee Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
162 Black Phoebe Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
163 Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
164 Masked Water-Tyrant Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
165 Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
166 Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
167 Dusky-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
168 Boat-billed Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
169 Rusty-margined Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
170 Social Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
171 Golden-crowned Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
172 Streaked Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
173 Piratic Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
174 Snowy-throated Kingbird Rio Silanche–general area
175 Tropical Kingbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
176 Brown-capped Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
177 Chivi Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
178 Turquoise Jay Guango Lodge
179 Blue-and-white Swallow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
180 Brown-bellied Swallow Reserva Yanacocha
181 Southern Rough-winged Swallow Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
182 Gray-breasted Martin Rio Silanche–general area
183 Bank Swallow Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
184 Tawny-faced Gnatwren Rio Silanche–general area
185 House Wren Sachatamia Lodge
186 Mountain Wren Sachatamia Lodge
187 Sedge Wren Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
188 Bay Wren Mindo–Yellow House Trails
189 Rufous Wren Reserva Yanacocha
190 Gray-breasted Wood-Wren Sachatamia Lodge
191 Andean Solitaire Sachatamia Lodge
192 Spotted Nightingale-Thrush Milpe Bird Sanctuary
193 Ecuadorian Thrush Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
194 Great Thrush Nono Village Main Street
195 Glossy-black Thrush Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
196 Thick-billed Euphonia Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
197 Orange-bellied Euphonia Sachatamia Lodge
198 Yellow-bellied Siskin Sachatamia Lodge
199 Hooded Siskin Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
200 Yellow-throated Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
201 Ashy-throated Chlorospingus Mindo–Yellow House Trails
202 Dusky Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
203 Gray-browed Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
204 Orange-billed Sparrow Rio Silanche–general area
205 Chestnut-capped Brushfinch Sachatamia Lodge
206 Rufous-collared Sparrow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
207 Tricolored Brushfinch Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
208 Pale-naped Brushfinch Laguna Papallacta
209 Yellow-breasted Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
210 White-winged Brushfinch Refugio Paz de Las Aves
211 Scarlet-rumped Cacique Rio Silanche–general area
212 Mountain Cacique Guango Lodge
213 Shiny Cowbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
214 Scrub Blackbird Sachatamia Lodge
215 Tropical Parula Sachatamia Lodge
216 Blackburnian Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
217 Three-striped Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
218 Black-crested Warbler Laguna Papallacta
219 Buff-rumped Warbler Rio Silanche–general area
220 Golden-bellied Warbler Milpe Bird Sanctuary
221 Russet-crowned Warbler Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
222 Slate-throated Redstart Sachatamia Lodge
223 Spectacled Redstart Reserva Yanacocha
224 Dusky-faced Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
225 White-winged Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
226 Black-capped Hemispingus Guango Lodge
227 Black-eared Hemispingus Guango Lodge
228 Superciliaried Hemispingus Reserva Yanacocha
229 Rufous-chested Tanager Old Tandayapa Road
230 White-shouldered Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
231 Tawny-crested Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
232 White-lined Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
233 Flame-rumped Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
234 Black-chested Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
235 Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
236 Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
237 Golden-crowned Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
238 Fawn-breasted Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
239 Glistening-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
240 Blue-gray Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
241 Palm Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
242 Blue-capped Tanager Refugio Paz de Las Aves
243 Rufous-throated Tanager San Miguel de Los Bancos–Mirador Rio Blanco
244 Golden-naped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
245 Gray-and-gold Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
246 Black-capped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
247 Scrub Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
248 Golden-hooded Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
249 Blue-necked Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
250 Beryl-spangled Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
251 Metallic-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
252 Bay-headed Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
253 Flame-faced Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
254 Blue-whiskered Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
255 Golden Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
256 Silver-throated Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
257 Swallow Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
258 Black-faced Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
259 Scarlet-thighed Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
260 Blue Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
261 Scarlet-breasted Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
262 Green Honeycreeper Rio Silanche–general area
263 Scarlet-browed Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
264 Guira Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
265 Blue-backed Conebill Reserva Yanacocha
266 Glossy Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
267 Black Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
268 Masked Flowerpiercer Old Tandayapa Road
269 Plumbeous Sierra-Finch Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
270 Gray-hooded Bush Tanager Guango Lodge
271 Blue-black Grassquit Rio Silanche–general area
272 Variable Seedeater Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
273 Black-and-white Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
274 Yellow-bellied Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
275 Plain-colored Seedeater Road from San Jorge Ecolodge to Yanacocha Reserve
276 Bananaquit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
277 Buff-throated Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
278 Black-winged Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
Velvet-purple Coronet
Velvet-purple Coronet

Israel, Feb/Mar 2019

Little Crake2
Male Little Crake at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat. It is rare to get such good views of this reedbed skulker!

This one wasn’t a birding trip, but – naturally – I had my eye on a few Western Palearctic species that I needed for my list! In the end, I scored with 15 life birds and an additional 5 Western Palearctic ticks, taking my life and Western Palearctic totals to 2,381 and 546, respectively.

I was most excited about heading to Eilat, which had been my dream destination when I was cutting my teeth as a young birder in Europe. However, maybe I am getting jaded in my old age – and I was definitely too early in the season for proper migration – but Eilat didn’t really have the “wow” factor I had been anticipating.

The desert areas to the north of Eilat were especially tough to bird, with one visit to Amram’s Pillars yielding literally nothing at all, neither seen nor heard, apart from a few passing Pallid Swifts and Rock Martins overhead – which, let’s face it, could have flown over almost anywhere!

On the other hand, desert birding in Wadi Mishmar, near Ein Gedi on the shores of the Dead Sea, was unexpectedly good – and produced most of the specialties over a couple of visits.

White-crowned Wheatear
White-crowned Wheatear, a stunning bird that I saw in just a couple of spots in dry, barren desert.

Birding locations:

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Both cities harbored a quite surprising variety of birds. In Tel Aviv, the seafront area produced my first Armenian Gulls, there were Palestine Sunbirds and White-spectacled Bulbuls in the leafier streets – and even a Hoopoe probing the turf along the promenade, oblivious to the hordes of people passing nearby.

Jerusalem’s Bird Observatory, centrally located in Sacher Park, is a well-known migration spot, and although I was a little early for spring migrants, there was still plenty to see (although unfortunately I did not connect with the wintering Pine Bunting there).

Yellow-vented Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul in Tel Aviv – an attractive, common and widespread species in Israel.

The Sea of Galilee: The highlight here was great looks at hulking, stunning Pallas’s Gulls in breeding plumage – a five-star Western Palearctic tick and surely one of the most impressive gulls in the world. The whole area was quite rich in birds, especially in the hills on the Golan Heights side of the lake, where Long-billed Pipit was a target lifer (scored!) and I also encountered a singing Clamorous Reed Warbler in the reeds along the eastern shore.

Pallas Gull
Gorgeous breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls patrolled the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a real treat to see …. my only previous experience of this species had been just a handful of winter-plumaged birds in coastal Thailand.

The Eastern valleys along the Jordan border: We were just driving through this area, and I wish I could have spent more time here. An hour in the Gesher Fishponds area produced over 50 species including plenty of shorebirds, both Dead Sea and Desert Sparrows, several migrating Black Storks, and a Booted Eagle.

Sand Partridge
Sand Partridge at Wadi Mishmar – an almost unbelievably attractively marked species.

Wadi Mishmar, near Ein Gedi: Two visits – late afternoon, and early the following morning – turned up 24 species, which for a desert is a good tally. I found many birds here that I saw nowhere else on the trip, including Sand Partridge, Fan-tailed Raven, Trumpeter Finch, Striolated Bunting, Scrub Warbler, Cyprus Warbler, and Arabian Babbler.

Trumpeter Finch
Trumpeter Finch at Wadi Mishmar.

Eilat: The highlight here was undoubtedly the two Black Scrub-Robins in Samar, about 25 minutes north of Eilat, which were overwintering in a dense patch of desert scrub and have been enjoyed by many birders. This is one of the most sought-after of all Western Palearctic species, and is only irregularly found in the region.

Black Scrub-Robin
One of the two Black Scrub-Robins at Samar.

The International Birding and Research Center in Eilat was good for close views of Little Crake among a fairly wide range of species, and it obviously has a lot of potential as a migrant hotspot in April. However, the North Beach failed to yield White-eyed Gull, which I had falsely assumed was a “gimme” here!

Western Reef Heron
Western Reef Heron in the early morning sunshine at North Beach, Eilat.

Overall, I saw 120 species in two weeks, even though I was “non-birding” the majority of the time. Israel can definitely be recommended as an easy, comfortable birding destination with good infrastructure and a wide range of species in a relatively small area – not to mention a handful of Western Palearctic specialties which can be hard to find anywhere else in the region.

Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-Eater near its nest burrow, north of Eilat.
Desert Lark
Desert Lark at Wadi Mishmar.
Greater Flamingoes
Greater Flamingoes near Eilat.
House Crow
House Crow on Eilat’s North Beach.

“Non-birding” in Mexico ….

Aztec Parakeet
Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet. This bird flew in and landed right next to me while I was at the top of the Muyil viewing tower.

Living in Houston, it is just a hop skip and a jump to some excellent birding spots in Mexico. In fact, it can be quicker to get to the Yucatan on a super-cheap flight than driving to many parts of Texas. I recently took a short non-birding break to Tulum, on the coast about 75 minutes south of Cancun Airport. I say “non-birding”, but any birder will tell you that there is no such thing as a non-birding vacation!

Yucatan Jay
Yucatan Jay. Endemic to the Yucatan region of Mexico and, like most jays, a very cool-looking bird. It was common at Muyil, often encountered in large, noisy flocks.

My wife Jenna and I flew out of Hobby Airport in Houston on a direct Southwest flight to Cancun, and I picked up a pre-booked rental car from Enterprise on arrival. This company is not the cheapest option, but there are numerous banana skins, scams and hassles associated with car rental in Mexico, so I was happy to pay a little extra to be with a reputable and well-reviewed company. As it turned out, Enterprise’s service was exemplary from start to finish with no nasty surprises whatsoever. Less than seven hours after leaving our house, we were on a white sand beach under swaying palms, eyeing the Caribbean Sea from our beachfront casita, and not another soul in sight. Paradise indeed!

No stretch of paradise can possibly be complete without some good birds, and it wasn’t long before I had ticked off the local race of Golden-fronted Woodpecker (“Velasquez’s Woodpecker”) which might be good for a split one day. Its smaller, daintier-billed counterpart, the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker, was also encountered on several occasions during our 6-night stay.

Velasquezs Woodpecker
Golden-fronted (Velasquez’s) Woodpecker. A very common bird everywhere in Quintana Roo.

My birding was more or less restricted to the first few hours of daylight each day, as I had many other obligations. This turned out quite well as, in common with many parts of the tropics, birding started fast and furious at sunrise before going almost dead after 10.00am with hardly a bird to be seen or heard.

I settled on the Mayan ruins at Muyil for my main birding destination, seeing as it was just a 30-minute drive from our accommodation, and from recent eBird reports appeared to be by far the richest site in terms of species diversity within easy reach. And so it proved – three early mornings at the site produced 84 species. My one qualm with Muyil is that this archaeological site is gated and locked until 8.00am (or even later, because the arriving staff were never punctual), which is very frustrating as it is broad daylight by 7.00am at this time of the year, and the first hour of the day is without a doubt the best time to be birding.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole at Muyil, one of five Oriole species seen at this site.

Fortunately, directly across the main road from the Muyil ruins entrance is a nice area of secondary growth bisected by several quiet residential roads, which allowed for some pretty decent birding before the “main event” at 8.00am when the Muyil gates opened.

Muyil itself consists of several ruined and picturesque Mayan structures set amid a parkland landscape, with denser primary forest beyond. At the back of the site, a trail leads through primary forest to a boardwalk, from which wet mangrove forest can be observed. The boardwalk leads to a fine viewing tower with panoramic views across large tracts of old-growth forest, and eventually a beach on a lagoon. It has all the habitat variety and ingredients for an excellent morning’s birding, and so it proved, even on the one day when weather conditions were far from ideal.

Russet-naped Wood Rail
Russet-naped Wood-Rail on the Muyil boardwalk – quite a stunner, as well as being a surprisingly large and lanky bird when seen at close range like this!

Muyil is easily reached from Tulum, simply follow the main road south towards Chetumal for about 20 minutes, until the village of Muyil – the entrance to the ruins is on the left. I imagine it would be an easy trip by bus or “collectivo” minivan for any Tulum-based birders without their own transport. Two fees are payable: 45 pesos (about $2.50) to gain access to the ruins, and a further 50 pesos for the boardwalk and tower.

We stayed on Soliman Bay, to the north of Tulum, which was productive in its own right, with mangroves, scrub and shoreline producing several interesting birds that were absent from Muyil, such as Mangrove Vireo and Black Catbird.

The obligatory one-day trip to the world-famous Chichen Itza yielded large numbers of tourists and not many interesting birds, with the notable exception of a pair of Bat Falcons around the temples and ruins.

Pale-billed Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker at Muyil.

Complete list of birds seen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, October 3rd-9th. Personal lifers are in bold:

Plain Chachalaca
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Ruddy Quail-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Squirrel Cuckoo
Vaux’s Swift
White-bellied Emerald
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Russet-naped Wood-Rail
Black-necked Stilt
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Osprey
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Black-headed Trogon
Lesson’s Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan
Yucatan Woodpecker
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Collared Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
Peregrine
Olive-throated Parakeet
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Greenish Elaenia
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Tropical Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Rose-throated Becard
Lesser Greenlet
Mangrove Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Yucatan Vireo
Brown Jay
Green Jay
Yucatan Jay
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Clay-colored Thrush
Black Catbird
Tropical Mockingbird
Scrub Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Olive Sparrow
Yellow-billed Cacique
Black-cowled Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Yellow-backed Oriole
Orange Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Prothonotary Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Gray-headed Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Black-headed Saltator
Grayish Saltator

Total species seen: 114
North America life list: 857

Tropical Pewee
Tropical Pewee at Soliman Bay.
Lineated Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker at Muyil.
Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole trying to hide in the foliage at Chichen Itza.

Spring at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush. A common spring migrant at Edith L Moore, and a small number remain to breed on the reserve.


I am fortunate to live and work just a few minutes from one of urban Houston’s most productive migrant-watching locations, the Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, run by Houston Audubon. This small, mature woodland in the suburbs of west Houston is a renowned spot for migrant warblers in spring, as they pass through Texas in large numbers on the way to their breeding grounds.

The habitat is mostly dense, mature woodland, with a creek along most of the western edge. A handful of open areas – the parking lot, the plant nursery, and the main bridge over the creek – offer glimpses of sky, but mostly this is a spot for patient and quiet stalking through the woods while listening for bird calls. The lack of habitat diversity means it is unusual to see a long list of birds here, and entire families such as sparrows are either very scarce or entirely absent. Moreover, even the site specialties – warblers – are rarely present in large numbers. However, quality far exceeds quantity, and on a good day in spring, ten or more warbler species are possible.

The area around the cabin pond often attracts the widest variety of species, and well-stocked bird feeders cater for the resident birds and sometimes tempt migrants such as Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak to linger for a few days. Elsewhere, birds are sparsely distributed throughout the woods. Migrant warblers often join the resident Carolina Chickadees in loose, mixed-species flocks, and tracking down the vocal chickadees is a useful technique when warbler-hunting here.

A handful of mulberry trees scattered throughout the reserve attract a range of birds when fruiting. The most obvious one is immediately adjacent to the cabin, above a small pond, and Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Gray Catbird – among other migrants – can be expected here in late April.

A sudden spring shower can produce a mini-fallout, especially in the taller trees around the cabin pond and along the creek, as tired birds take a break from their northbound migration to wait out the rain. Some of them hang around for a few hours, while others disappear immediately once the rain stops. Otherwise, it can be hard to predict when the reserve is going to be “hot”. A promising-looking weather front may produce almost nothing, while a clear day with light winds can unexpectedly bring in the birds. Migrants may drop in at any time of day, and in my experience late afternoon/evening visits are often the best.

This spring, I set myself an intention to visit the reserve at least five times a week between March 15th and May 15th. The data below summarizes all of my visits in the three months from March to May 2018, including a handful of visits made in early March and late May outside of the above-mentioned period. During these 13 weeks, I made 76 eBird checklists, an average of 5.84 visits per week. In peak migration season – mid to late April – I was at the reserve twice a day from Monday through Friday and occasionally at the weekend.

Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary is well-covered in spring by numerous birders, but it is quite possible to see a very different range of migrants to someone else on site at the same time, such is nature of the densely vegetated habitat. In other words, it is easy to miss stuff here! The following 35 species were recorded by other birders during the spring, mostly only on a single occasion, but not by me:

Turkey Vulture
Bay-breasted Warbler
Yellow-throated Vireo
Swainson’s Hawk
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Dickcissel
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Willow Flycatcher
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Yellow Warbler
Orchard Oriole
Red-headed Woodpecker
Blue Grosbeak
Bronzed Cowbird
Cattle Egret
Philadelphia Vireo
Cerulean Warbler
Great Horned Owl
Savannah Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Anhinga
Osprey
Yellow-throated Warbler
Cave Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Eastern Screech-Owl
Swallow-tailed Kite
Peregrine
White Ibis
Prothonotary Warbler
Merlin

I recorded a total of 96 bird species at E L Moore during the spring. The full species summary is below. “5/76 checklists” means I saw a species 5 times out of my 76 visits, and I have also included the maximum count for each bird:

Wood Duck: 3/76 checklists, max count 2. Perhaps tries to nest in tree holes along the creek, but infrequently seen.

Great Blue Heron: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Sometimes seen along the creek.

Snowy Egret: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird at the creek under the main bridge in May.

Little Blue Heron: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Single adult seen on a few occasions in late March and early April.

Green Heron: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. A single migrant along the creek in May was the only bird seen.

Black Vulture: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasionally glimpsed soaring overhead.

Mississippi Kite: 6/76 checklists, max count 3. Breeds nearby, and sometimes wanders into reserve airspace from the end of April onwards.

Cooper’s Hawk: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. Occasional visitor.

Bald Eagle: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single adult soaring very high above the parking lot in late April. About the 6th or 7th record for the reserve.

Bald Eagle2
Record shot of the adult Bald Eagle at E L Moore. This photo was taken at around 200x zoom – the bird was extremely high and almost invisible to the naked eye.

Red-shouldered Hawk: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Irregularly seen throughout the period.

Broad-winged Hawk: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant over the parking lot in April.

Red-tailed Hawk: 12/76 checklists, max count 1. One locally resident individual sometimes seen over parking lot.

White-winged Dove: 73/76 checklists, max count 6. Common resident.

Mourning Dove: 12/76 checklists, max count 2. Presumably resident although much less common than White-winged.

Barred Owl: 7/76 checklists, max count 1. Pair resident on the reserve, although I only ever saw one at a time. Quite regularly seen in April and May on a favored perch above the stream viewed from bridge 4.

Common Nighthawk: 2/76 checklists, max count 3. Common breeder in Houston but infrequently noted on the reserve due to the lack of easily-viewable airspace.

Chuck-wills-widow: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Most often seen only briefly when flushed. Probably a regular migrant through the reserve and no doubt more common than the small number of sightings would suggest.

Chuck
Chuck-will’s-widow. The only one I saw at rest this spring at E L Moore, the others being brief glimpses of flushed birds.

Chimney Swift: 43/76 checklists, max count 6.  Regularly seen overhead.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: 8/76 checklists, max count 2. When present, usually seen in trees around the parking lot, or visiting the feeder in front of the cabin.

Belted Kingfisher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird along the creek in early April.

Red-bellied Woodpecker: 51/76 checklists, max count 3. Resident on the reserve.

Downy Woodpecker: 67/76 checklists,  max count 8. Common resident.

Northern Flicker: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional visitor.

Pileated Woodpecker: 22/76 checklists, max count 2. Resident on the reserve.

Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker engaged in a territorial dispute on the large, dead Loblolly tree just across the creek along the western perimeter of the park.

Olive-sided Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant on the large dead Loblolly tree just outside the reserve’s western boundary in late May.

Eastern Wood-Pewee: 8/76 checklists, max count 3. Regularly seen from late April onwards, and perhaps breeds on the reserve.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant in late May.

Acadian Flycatcher: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. The most regularly seen “empid” at E L Moore in April and early May.

Willow/Alder Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Just a single non-calling bird by the oxbow in May.

Least Flycatcher: 2/76 checklists, max count 1. Singles in late April and early May, one beside the cabin and the other at the far south end of the reserve.

Eastern Phoebe: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional winterer, just the one bird seen during the period in early March.

Great Crested Flycatcher: 20/76 checklists, max count 3. Regularly seen and heard from mid-April onwards, and probably breeds on the reserve.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher. Regularly seen and heard at Edith L Moore from mid April onwards.

White-eyed Vireo: 10/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional migrants throughout the period.

Blue-headed Vireo: 15/76 checklists, max count 3. Lingering winterers and spring migrants seen up to the end of April, often in song.

Warbling Vireo: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. A single migrant near the cabin in late April.

Red-eyed Vireo: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular late season migrant, often in song.

Blue Jay: 75/76 checklists, max count 15. A common and vocal resident.

American Crow: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird in April.

Purple Martin: 14/76 checklists, max count 6. Migrants or local breeders sometimes seen overhead.

Tree Swallow: 5/76 checklists, max count 10. Migrants sometimes seen overhead.

Barn Swallow: 6/76 checklists, max count 1. The occasional migrant noted.

Carolina Chickadee: 70/76 checklists, max count 10. Common resident, highest numbers in May after young have fledged.

Tufted Titmouse: 22/76 checklists, max count 4. Resident breeder on the reserve.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Carolina Wren: 64/76 checklists, max count 8. Common breeding resident.

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren near the cabin pond at E L Moore.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: 24/76 checklists, max count 5. Winters on the reserve, and lingering birds/passage migrants regularly seen until mid April.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 46/76 checklists, max count 5. Winters on the reserve, and commonly seen until mid April, with a late bird in early May.

Veery: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Three singles in April. Regular spring migrant in small numbers.

Gray-cheeked Thrush: 8/76 checklists, max count 3. Regular migrant, usually seen on the ground or at fruiting mulberry trees.

Swainson’s Thrush: 16/76 checklists, max count 8. Fairly common migrant in April and early May.

Hermit Thrush: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Winters on the reserve, with the odd migrant still to be seen later in March and in April.

Wood Thrush: 39/76 checklists, max count 12. Common migrant and probable breeder on the reserve.

American Robin: 38/76 checklists, max count 4. Mainly a wintering bird, although several pairs breed on the reserve.

Gray Catbird: 16/76 checklists, max count 6. Fairly common migrant in April and May, usually seen in fruiting mulberry trees.

Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird – a common but secretive migrant usually found surreptitiously lurking among the mulberries.

Brown Thrasher: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Usually seen from the boardwalks at the back of the reserve. Status uncertain but perhaps overwinters and possibly even breeds.

Northern Mockingbird: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Surprisingly rare, usually stays in gardens outside the reserve.

European Starling: 2/76 checklists, max count 3. The occasional flyover noted.

Cedar Waxwing: 9/76 checklists, max count 20. Wintering flocks linger until well into April.

Ovenbird: 14/76 checklists, max count 4. One of the specialties of the site which should always be present on a good migrant day in April and early May.

Worm-eating Warbler: 7/76 checklists, max count 1. Regularly encountered from late March.

Louisiana Waterthrush: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. A March and April migrant which should be looked for after rain at the Church Gate marsh, and the wet area in the south-east of the reserve.

Northern Waterthrush: 9/76 checklists, max count 5. The more frequent of the two waterthrushes, and tends to appear a little later than Louisiana.

Golden-winged Warbler: 5/76 checklists, max count 3. A local specialty of the site in late April and early May.

Blue-winged Warbler: 10/76 checklists, max count 2. Regularly seen from the end of March through early May.

Black-and-White Warbler: 12/76 checklists, max count 3. One of the more regular migrant warblers, seen throughout the season from March to May.

Swainson’s Warbler: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. It was a good spring at E L Moore for this unobtrusive species, with two birds in April and one in early May.

Tennessee Warbler: 6/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional visitor on good migrant days, usually seen high in tall trees near the cabin or along the creek.

Orange-crowned Warbler: 9/76 checklists, max count 2. Winters commonly on the reserve but most birds depart in early March.

Nashville Warbler: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. An irregular spring migrant, apparently more common in fall.

Kentucky Warbler: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. A specialty of the site for those who put in the time and effort!

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky Warbler beside the trail along the creek, cabin side, at Edith L Moore.

Common Yellowthroat: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional migrant at the Church Gate marsh or in bushes along the creek.

Hooded Warbler: 20/76 checklists, max count 3. One of the most regular migrant warblers, seen throughout the spring from March to May but especially earlier in the season.

American Redstart: 6/76 checklists, max count 4. Late season migrant which can be fairly numerous in early May.

Northern Parula: 8/76 checklists, max count 4. Regular migrant especially in April.

Magnolia Warbler: 8/76 checklists, max count 6. Not seen until May, when it is often the most numerous late season warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler: 2/76 checklists, max count 4. Stunning, sought-after migrant which is occasionally seen on the reserve especially in early May.

Blackburnian Warbler2
Male Blackburnian Warbler in trees beside the nursery at Edith L Moore.

Chestnut-sided Warbler: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Along with Magnolia, the most numerous of the late season migrants in early May.

Pine Warbler: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Sometimes visits the cabin feeders in late winter, and singing birds in spring sometimes seen in mature pines at the far south of the reserve.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle): 4/76 checklists, max count 3. Winters in small numbers on the reserve, but most birds leave early in March.

Black-throated Green Warbler: 3/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional migrant.

Canada Warbler: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Normally one of the more frequent and numerous late season warblers in May, for some reason this species was incredibly scarce this spring, with just one bird seen (a male in late April).

Wilson’s Warbler: 17/76 checklists, max count 3. Overwinters in small numbers on the reserve, with lingering birds/passage migrants throughout April, and a very late female calling and seen well in mid-May.

Yellow-breasted Chat: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular migrant. Mulberry trees are a good place to look.

Summer Tanager: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular migrant.

Summer Tanager
Male Summer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. Seen in April in fruiting mulberry trees.

Northern Cardinal: 75/76 checklists, max count 18. Common breeding resident.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Regular migrant in late April, seen at the cabin feeders as well as on fruiting mulberry trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the tree above the cabin.

Indigo Bunting: 17/76 checklists, max count 15. An excellent spring for this species, with birds present at the cabin feeders – and elsewhere on the reserve – throughout most of April.

Painted Bunting: 4/76 checklists, max count 1, including a popular and much-admired male at the cabin feeders in April.

Painted Bunting2
Male Painted Bunting. This bird was so popular among photographers and general visitors that the area around the feeders had to be cordoned off to reduce disturbance.

Baltimore Oriole: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. Several birds at the cabin mulberry tree in April.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole in the tree above the cabin.

Red-winged Blackbird: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Three wintering females at the cabin feeders in March dwindled to one by late April.

Common Grackle: 56/76 checklists, max count 50. Common resident/spring migrant. Surprisingly the only grackle seen on the reserve, although Great-tailed are resident nearby.

House Finch: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. A pair at the cabin feeders on one occasion in April, and a flyover bird.

American Goldfinch: 2/76 checklists, max count 1. A common wintering bird at the cabin feeders, but just one individual lingered into March.

House Sparrow: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. Singles occasionally at the cabin feeders.

Costa Rica, February 23rd-March 3rd 2018

Bare-necked Umbrellabird
Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the Los Toucanes trail, Arenal, Costa Rica, February 25th 2018. One of the most sought-after Central American birds due to its rarity, unpredictability, and striking appearance.

Costa Rica barely needs any introduction as one of the world’s premier birding destinations. There can be few places where such a large number of species can be seen in such a small geographical area. Combine this with a tourist-friendly infrastructure and straightforward access by air, and it is easy to see why Costa Rica is a standout choice for birders tight for time who want to see the broadest possible range of birds.

Silver-throated Tanager and Baltimore Oriole
Silver-throated Tanager and Baltimore Oriole enjoying a papaya lunch at the Mirador la Cascada, on the road from San Jose to Arenal.

My good friend Tim Harrop and I had just six full days to play with, and we decided on three main locations: Arenal Volcano, Monteverde, and Carara National Park. The first two sites are no more than twenty miles apart as the Bellbird flies, yet they offer an astoundingly different range of birds due to changes in elevation, rainfall, and habitat.

Rufous-collared Sparrow
Rufous-collared Sparrow, the only one of the 5 Zonotrichia sparrows not found in the US. It is common in highland habitats from southern Mexico through the far southern tip of South America.

Our first overnight stop was just a couple of miles from the airport at Costa Rica Airport B+B. This welcoming little hotel tucked away in lush gardens comes highly recommended for the on-site birding, and we made our acquaintance here with many of Costa Rica’s “backyard birds”, including several that we didn’t see again for the rest of the trip.

Black-cowled Oriole
Black-cowled Oriole out the back of Toad Hall restaurant on the shores of Lake Arenal, February 26th 2018.

The following morning, we made our way in the general direction of Arenal Volcano. We had intended to spend the first few hours of the day at the Volcan Poas, a high-altitude national park with several birds we would not be able to see at other sites during the trip. However, it turns out that Volcan Poas has been closed due to increased volcanic activity, with no prospect of it reopening anytime soon. It’s a sorry situation for the restaurants and fruit vendors who line the approach road to the park. In terms of the birds, we were still able to connect with some of the high-altitude specialties, especially in the last mile before the road closure, including Volcano Hummingbird, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Sooty Thrush and Flame-throated Warbler.

Green Hermit
Green Hermit – a fairly common hummingbird in some areas of Costa Rica, but hard to see like this. Fortunately, this bird was displaying at a small “lek” of several individuals in the forest and could be tracked down to a perch by its persistent call.

Further along the road to Arenal, a most worthwhile lunch stop is to be had at Cinchona – Mirador La Cascada, where a bird table and numerous feeders at a small restaurant provide a pit stop for hungry hummingbirds, barbets, toucanets and tanagers. We had our only Buff-fronted Quail Dove and Green Thorntails of our trip here.

Green Thorntail
Green Thorntail at Mirador de la Cascada. One of Costa Rica’s more striking hummingbirds, which we only saw at this one location.
Prong-billed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.

One of the not-so-endearing aspects of Costa Rica is that it takes absolutely ages to get anywhere. The entire San Jose area is in a state of seemingly permanent gridlock. Even outside of urban areas, roads have many curves and slow trucks, and average speeds are low. Late on the first day we did finally reach Arenal Observatory Lodge, which is truly a stunning location and easily our favorite birding site of the whole trip. In fact, there is no need to even leave the grounds of the lodge, as the trail network is extensive and the birding nothing short of spectacular. More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the grounds.

Golden-hooded Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager, which is both lovely to look at and easy to find at Arenal.

The deck outside the Observatory Lodge restaurant, overlooking the mighty volcano itself, is possibly the most outstanding “big sit” location in the world. One of the most striking aspects of birding here was the almost constant views of Great Curassow and Crested Guan just a short distance from the viewing area. These enormous and delicious-looking gamebirds are understandably a popular quarry for hunters, but they thrive and even become tame in areas where they are not molested.

Crested Guan
Crested Guan, boldly feeding in full view of the Arenal Observatory Lodge deck. There were probably a couple of Great Curassows wandering around on the ground underneath as well.

Despite the excellent trails within the grounds, we decided to head just outside the Observatory gates for our first full morning here. The Los Toucanes trail now charges a $10 entry fee, but our investment repaid itself a hundred times when we found a Bare-necked Umbrellabird a mile along the trail. This is one of those spectacular, semi-mythical species that cannot be guaranteed anywhere, and indeed is now rare and highly endangered in its small world range in Costa Rica and Panama. One of the best birds I have ever seen, and we enjoyed spectacular views of it too.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher
Yellow-margined Flycatcher in a mixed species flock on the Los Toucanes trail.

Apart from the Umbrellabird, it is hard to pick favorites from the 116 species we observed at Arenal. Black-crested Coquette, a tiny, bee-sized hummingbird, would definitely be in the top five, and from a rarity perspective, both Cedar Waxwing and Cape May Warbler are great records for Costa Rica.

Red-headed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.

The Monteverde area was our next stop. This is the cradle of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and despite the eye-watering entrance fees for the reserves, at least you feel that the money is being well spent on conserving the entrancingly beautiful cloud forests here. Ecotourism at Monteverde is an industrial operation, with thousands of tourists pouring into the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve each day. It’s not as easy to bird as Arenal, with long periods during our six-hour visit where we saw few birds. However, with a lot of effort we did eventually come away with nice views of the emblematic Resplendent Quetzal, as well as other goodies such as Orange-bellied Trogon, the rare Brown-billed Scythebill, Azure-hooded Jay and Yellow-thighed Finch. Just outside the main entrance is a small restaurant which serves exceptionally good coffee to humans, as well as irresistible nectar to a range of hummingbirds including Magenta-throated Woodstar and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal at Monteverde. Perhaps the most emblematic bird in the whole of central America (and the national bird of Guatemala), it is found in high-altitude cloud forests but despite its gaudiness is not an easy bird to locate.

We also took in a couple of less-visited reserves during our trip to Monteverde: the Curi-Cancha refuge and the Santa Elena reserve, with Black-breasted Wood-Quail observed at the former location, and Buffy Tuftedcheek and Golden-browed Chlorophonia among the highlights at the latter.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher at the Curi-Cancha refuge in Monteverde.
Black Guan
Black Guan at the Santa Elena reserve.

The final location on our itinerary was the coastal Carara National Park and surrounding areas. This is one of the most biodiverse spots in the whole country, as it straddles the divide between the drier north and humid southern coastal regions, and birds from both north and south can be found in the park where their ranges overlap.

Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaws. Thanks to conservation efforts, this spectacular parrot is now common and easy to find in lowland coastal forests in the Carara area.
Great Tinamou
Great Tinamou at the Carara NP headquarters trails. Early morning was the best time to find this odd-looking bird walking quietly beside the trails.

For a few weeks earlier in the winter, there had been regular reports of an exquisite Yellow-billed Cotinga in trees along the approach road to the Cerro Lodge, a few miles north of Carara National Park. It was more in hope than expectation that we went looking for this bird early one morning en route to the national park, and unbelievably we located it and had some crippling views. The Yellow-billed Cotinga is rather special because not only is it very rare (just 250-500 birds remain) and declining due to habitat loss, but also hard to see, as it usually sits motionless in the canopy of tall rainforest trees for long periods.

Yellow-billed Cotinga4
Yellow-billed Cotinga at the Cerro Lodge entrance road, one of the true “megas” of any trip to Costa Rica for those lucky enough to find one!

We walked the trails at the Carara National Park headquarters a number of times. We found the best trail to be the first (concrete) loop. The second and third loops have spectacular habitat but there were very few birds to be found – a comparable lowland rainforest experience to parts of south Thailand and Malaysia where bird diversity is as high as 220 species per square kilometer, but where you might glimpse just a handful of birds on each visit. On one afternoon, we finally located an army ant swarm on the first loop (the only one we found throughout our time in CR), attended by large numbers of birds of a variety of species including Black-faced Antthrush.

Gray-hooded Tanager
Gray-hooded Tanager at Carara NP. This bird was part of a spectacular mixed species flock attending an army ant swarm.

This trail also gave us Crane Hawk, Great Tinamou, Royal Flycatcher, Riverside Wren and plenty of Scarlet Macaws, the latter species keeping the numerous non-birding visitors happy.

Crane Hawk
Crane Hawk at the Carara NP headquarters trail. This bird feeds in an unusual way by reaching its long legs into tree holes and grabbing whatever is inside.

The riverside trail, a short distance up the road from the HQ, is often touted as the best single trail in Costa Rica for birding. We spent a morning there and came away with a good selection of birds including the local specialty Orange-collared Manakin.

Orange-collared Manakin
Orange-collared Manakin at the Riverside Trail, Carara NP. Not the best of photos but the vivid flame-orange color can be appreciated.
Black-throated Trogon
Black-throated Trogon at the Riverside Trail, Carara NP.

Finally, we spent some time around the mouth of the Tarcoles river, both on land and on a Crocodile Man boat tour into the mangroves. Boat-billed Heron and Panama Flycatcher both obliged on the boat tour, with Streak-backed Oriole and Olivaceous Piculet around the very birdy mangrove patch at the river mouth (the latter location accessible from the beach with no boat required).

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl near the Tarcoles River.
Mangrove Yellow Warbler
“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler – with its distinctively chestnut head – proved to be common in mangroves around the Tarcoles River mouth.

In just over a week, our trip total was 328 species – a number that would be hard to beat anywhere in the world in such a small area and short space of time. We will definitely be back at some point in the future, with the Caribbean lowlands at La Selva high on the wish list for the next trip!

Tufted Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher at the Santa Elena reserve.
Northern Emerald Toucanet
Northern Emerald Toucanet at the Mirador la Cascada feeding station.
Orange-bellied Trogon
Orange-bellied Trogon (minus tail) at Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve.

Trogon Dipping

Virginia Rail
Virginia Rail, Tyrrell Park Cattail Marsh, Jefferson County, January 28th 2018. One of four showing well in the open, unusual for this normally shy and retiring species.

In the full month since my last update, birding has been steady but not spectacular. I would even have said things were fairly good, were it not for a rather painful “dip” of a mega that showed up pretty much in my backyard in New Braunfels (well, a ten-minute drive away, which is practically backyard by Texas standards).

Late on a Saturday night, a week-old report (complete with photos) of a female Elegant Trogon appeared on the Facebook group “What’s That Bird?”. The Trogon was said to have been photographed in Panther Canyon, which is a scenic, three-quarter-mile long trail adjoining Landa Park close to downtown New Braunfels. I happened to be already in town when the news broke, so naturally I went straight to Panther Canyon at first light the next day. The chances of relocating the bird appeared to be vanishingly small, at best – the report was already a week old, and the bird could easily have moved on. Also, trogons of all species are notoriously hard to find. They spend long periods of time perched motionless, and are usually easiest to locate when vocalizing, which a winter female would most likely not be doing.

It’s kind of an odd feeling to be chasing a bird that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to find. After a couple of hours in the canyon, along with about ten other birders, I called it a day and went up to Canyon Lake instead, where the birding was much more rewarding with both Canyon Wren and Rock Wren within 30 feet of each other along the dam, plus several other goodies including a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay in trees near the dam, and a group of Eared Grebes on the water.

Canyon Wren
Canyon Wren on the dam at Canyon Lake, Comal County, February 4th 2018.

It was quite a surprise when news came through late in the day of the Elegant Trogon having been seen in Panther Canyon shortly before dark, and Carlos Ross managed to take some photos which confirmed the presence of this bird beyond all doubt. I happened to have already taken Monday morning off work, so there I was again in the canyon at first light the next day. I could only spare a couple of hours before I had to head back to Houston, however once again the Elegant Trogon didn’t show. Birding in Panther Canyon was proving to be an endurance test because – while the habitat bears a passing resemblance to exciting Elegant Trogon habitat in southeast Arizona – there seem to be very few birds living in there. Chases are always much more enjoyable when there are other birds around to maintain a birder’s focus and interest.

As I stalked slowly up and down the canyon, staring at Trogon-less trees, I was reminded of a chase (in the UK we call it a “twitch”) to see a Buff-bellied Pipit in Lincolnshire on a bitterly cold and overcast day in the depths of winter in about 2003. It was a near four-hour drive to the site, an enormous bare earth field just inland from the coast. A hundred birders lined up along the edge of the field for an eight-hour vigil, in the teeth of an easterly gale, scanning for the pipit. During that time I saw perhaps half a dozen species, and not a whiff of my target bird. The long drive home in the gloom of a winter afternoon was almost a relief after such a miserable day.

Anyway, the Elegant Trogon was refound in Panther Canyon at around 3.00pm, meaning that several of the birders who had been there in the morning had been looking for almost eight hours before locating the bird. Their patience and dedication is highly commendable. The Trogon was seen again on Tuesday (for prolonged periods, naturally while I was at work in Houston) and Thursday, but not on Wednesday and Friday despite plenty of people out there looking. It was always being found in the afternoons, sometimes right before dusk, so on Saturday I spent the last three hours of daylight in the canyon (along with perhaps fifty birders) with no luck. It has not been seen since, but it is possibly still present – there is a high chance the bird is wintering in the area, and either moves elsewhere for prolonged periods, or (most likely) is so unobtrusive that it basically never gets found along the canyon unless it is close enough for birders to almost trip over it. It surely is no coincidence that every time the bird has been found, it has initially been located within a few feet of the trail or even in trees directly above it.

Landa Park did have a consolation prize to offer on Saturday, a female Rusty Blackbird at the lake, an excellent county bird in what seems to have been a good winter for stray individuals of this species in central Texas. I could at least claim THAT for my Comal county list, which at 142 species as I write, is steadily moving in the right direction!

Wood Duck
Wood Duck at Landa Park, New Braunfels, February 4th 2018.
My focus this year is on county birding, instead of pan-Texas year listing, and I’ve had several excellent “county days” in the last month. I headed to Brazoria county on January 20th with James Rieman, and we quickly located the long-staying Glaucous Gull on the beach at Quintana, only to watch it fly to the end of the jetty and join an unprecedented second individual on the sea. A prolonged visit to the San Bernard refuge for the rest of the day produced 81 species including an unseasonal Yellow-breasted Chat and nice looks at American Bittern and Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull, Quintana Beach, Brazoria County, January 20th 2018.
Quintana Beach
Quintana Beach early in the morning on January 20th 2018.
Jefferson county the following weekend produced 103 species in one day, with my personal highlight being cracking views of several Virginia Rails feeding out in the open at Cattail Marsh near Beaumont. This handsome and retiring denizen of dense marshland vegetation can be a tough bird to see (I didn’t find one at all during my “big year” in 2017), but at this site they appeared to be very bold and unafraid to venture out of cover.
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo. I took this photo at Bear Creek Park in Houston, but this species is a fairly common winterer at a number of sites I visit regularly.
I’ve been visiting Edith L Moore reserve in Houston from time to time during my lunch breaks and after work (my office is less than a minute’s drive away), a location which offers plenty of birds in winter near the cabin, but usually belonging to the same range of resident and wintering species with few surprises. However, regular birds here in winter include Wilson’s Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Hermit Thrush, while the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker is resident, so it’s always a good location to spend half an hour on a sunny day. I usually take a camera with me, but the one time I didn’t (on a gloomy late afternoon that threatened rain), I had a close and prolonged encounter with a beautiful Barred Owl. It’s been a good year so far for owls, with 5 species already on my year list – Barred, Barn, Burrowing, Short-eared, and no fewer than eight encounters so far with the magnificent Great Horned Owl. Just the relatively common, but often hard to find, Eastern Screech-Owl to go to complete the set of regular east/central Texas owls for the year.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow at Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR on January 21st 2018.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet at Bear Creek Park. This tiny bird is extremely active, and this is the only time I’ve managed to capture a passable photo of one despite numerous efforts!

 

December big Texas Road Trip (and a little bit of Arizona and New Mexico)

Guadelupe Sunrise
Sunrise at the Guadalupe Mountains.

To make absolutely sure I cleared 400 species this year in Texas, I reckoned a final trip out West was needed for some regular winterers in the plains, and a handful of mountain species in the Guadalupes. With a full nine days to play with, I figured I could also fit in my inaugural trip to the Panhandle for some more northerly wintering birds rarely found elsewhere in the state.

The trip got off to an excellent start with a very cooperative Sage Thrasher in Fort Stockton – which turned out to be the only individual of this species I saw.

Sage Thrasher3
Sage Thrasher, Fort Stockton WWTP, December 2017.

Next up was Lake Balmorhea, simply a gorgeous location today when the sun was shining, the air was cool and calm, and the water was like glass. Lots of birds were showing in the bushes including some nice western wintering species: Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Green-tailed Towhee. On the water, a Common Loon loafed near the expected Clark’s and Eared Grebes, and there was a party of three Common Mergansers, a nice bird anywhere in Texas:

Common Merganser
Female-type Common Merganser at Lake Balmorhea, December 2017.

I stayed overnight in Van Horn, and headed up to the Guadalupe Mountains before dawn the next day. In the plains, the outside temperature dipped as low as 19F (minus 7C). However, as I gained altitude on the drive up to Frijole Ranch, the temperature climbed, and by first light it was a much more comfortable 36F (2C).

Guadelupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains at Frijole Ranch, December 2017.

Frijole Ranch was a hive of activity with large numbers of birds coming to drink and bathe in the spring near the old stone house. Highlights included two Juniper Titmice, which visited the area numerous times, but always moved through quickly and did not oblige for a photo. The Mountain Chickadees also wouldn’t sit still for my camera, but I had more luck photographing Steller’s Jay and a female Cassin’s Finch. This is turning out to be a great winter for irruptive montane species in Texas – all of the four birds mentioned above would be much harder to find in the state in a “normal” winter.

Stellers Jay
Steller’s Jay, Frijole Ranch, December 2017.

Nearby at Pine Springs, a Golden Eagle passed high overhead, two punk-hairstyled Phainopeplas showed well, and a curious Canyon Towhee decided the floorwell inside my car would be a good place to look for food. He was completely unconcerned that I was standing beside the car, less than three feet away.

Phainopepla
Phainopepla at Pine Springs, Guadalupe Mountains, December 2017.

With most of my mountain targets safely in the bag, and my year list target of 400 already exceeded, I descended to the lowlands to try for some raptors around Dell City during the afternoon. This scruffy little town in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains, close to the New Mexico border, is surrounded by mixed farmland and is an excellent location for open country birds in winter.

Dell City Williams Road
View from Dell City looking towards the Guadalupe Mountains, December 2017.

During the course of the afternoon I had repeated sightings of my two raptor targets, with at least eight individual Ferruginous Hawks and three Prairie Falcons seen. Other sightings included a Merlin, several Sagebrush Sparrows, and singles of both Grasshopper Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow, both of which are notable here.

Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon, Dell City, December 2017.
Sagebrush Sparrow
Sagebrush Sparrow, Dell City, December 2017.

The next morning I gradually worked my way west from Van Horn to El Paso with a few target birds in mind, successfully adding Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher and Anna’s Hummingbird to my list:

Crissal Thrasher2
Crissal Thrasher in Hudspeth County beside FM192, December 2017. This is a super-skulking denizen of dense desert thickets. However, this individual was involved in a territorial dispute with two others, and perched up for just long enough for me to get this photo.

With an almost 100% success rate in hitting my target species, by early afternoon I had already decided to drive an additional four hours west to southern Arizona, where at least ten possible lifers lay in wait. By mid-evening I was within 20 miles of my chosen birding location, the Madera Canyon, and found a suitable spot to hunker down and sleep in the car.

The day dawned cloudy and a little breezy, but thankfully the forecast high winds never materialized. Before long I had ratcheted up many of my targets: Bridled Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Red-naped Sapsucker, Painted Redstart and Rufous-winged Sparrow.

Painted Redstart
Painted Redstart, Madera Canyon, December 2017.

The feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge is a fantastic place to while away a couple of hours watching the comings and goings of birds at the feeders – highlights here included Arizona Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch (a local rarity), and repeated views of several Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, although I have to say the old name Magnificent Hummingbird is more apt for such a large, impressive hummingbird!

Arizona Woodpecker
Arizona Woodpecker, Madera Canyon, December 2017.
Rivolis Hummingbird
Male Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, December 2017.

Just up the road at the Madera Kubo B+B, I drew a blank with Elegant Trogon but a Hammond’s Flycatcher was seen well and there were several distinctively angry-looking Yellow-eyed Juncos among the numerous Dark-eyed Juncos:

Yellow-eyed Junco
Yellow-eyed Junco, Madera Canyon, December 2017. I was struck by how angry this bird looked!

An hour to the south near Sonoita, several Baird’s Sparrows had been reliably coming to a grassland water trough, but mid-afternoon was perhaps not the best time to look for them. I did repeatedly flush a likely suspect from the grass, which flew up from right under my feet but unfortunately disappeared into the grass each time without perching up, despite several attempts to drive it towards one of the few shrubs in the area! Flight views not being enough to clinch the identification, and not wanting to keep disturbing this bird, Baird’s Sparrow unfortunately has to remain “unticked”.

Sonoita Grasslands2
Late afternoon grasslands near Sonoita, AZ. There are probably a lot of Baird’s Sparrows hiding in this photo, unfortunately none of them revealed themselves for tickable views!

Another species here which never showed on the ground was Chestnut-collared Longspur. However, unlike Baird’s Sparrow the longspurs (about 90 of them in total, in  several flocks) showed for prolonged periods in flight in excellent light conditions, enabling most of the ID features to be seen.

The following morning I embarked on another long drive and by early afternoon I was in New Mexico, at a very famous spot where all three North American Rosy-Finch species spend the winter.

Sandia Mountains Views
View from Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

Birders make the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest House, a cafe at the summit of a mountain a mile above Albuquerque, where seed is put out for the birds, and with luck all three species (Black Rosy-Finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) may be seen in a large mixed flock.

Black Rosy-Finch
Black Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

All three Rosy-Finches are elusive, enigmatic denizens of the Alpine zone, and seeing them in summer entails going up to the often inaccessible peaks of North America’s highest mountains. In winter, they deign to descend a little lower, providing birders with a unique opportunity to catch up with them.

Nothing is ever simple in birding, however. After driving 450 miles from southern Arizona, I arrived at the summit of Sandia Crest at about 2.30pm to find the famous cafe closed. The sign on the door cheerily proclaims that the cafe is open every day of the year – apparently with the exception of the one day I decide to visit!

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

Moreover, it proved impossible to view the Rosy-Finch feeding area without entering the cafe, as the birds are fed on a high terrace. Slightly despondent, I wandered around until I spotted an empty bird table between the cafe and parking lot. I remembered I had some of Whole Foods’ delicious trail mix in my car, the kind with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Any self-respecting Rosy-Finch would be bound to enjoy that!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, NM, December 2017.

And so it proved. Not expecting a miracle, I put out my bait on the bird table and suddenly, a mercurial flock of Rosy-Finches appeared out of nowhere. I was lucky to get all three species in the one flock, including one individual of the rare Hepburn’s race of Gray-crowned:

Hepburns Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch
Rosy-finches enjoying my offerings at a bird table at Sandia Crest. The only Hepburn’s Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch I saw is in this shot, the bird with an all-brown body and mostly silvery-gray head.

I celebrated my Rosy-Finch success with an overnight stay in the relative luxury of a Super 8 motel (luxury compared to car camping that is!), and the following morning I enjoyed a walk in the crisp mountain air lower down in the Sandia Mountains. I was heading for one particular spot where Evening Grosbeaks regularly come to drink at a water trough. I didn’t get the grosbeaks, but did have a surprise lifer in the form of a stunning male Williamson’s Sapsucker:

Williamsons Sapsucker
Williamson’s Sapsucker near Albuquerque, NM, December 2017.

Then I was on the road east again, passing back into Texas around lunchtime, and during the afternoon I started looking for some of my Panhandle targets. American Tree Sparrow and Cackling Goose made it onto the list, and a distant adult Golden Eagle was a nice bird to see in this area. My chosen location for the following morning was Lake Palo Duro, in the far north of the Panhandle just a few miles south of the Oklahoma border. This is a wonderful spot for birding, although the weather was quite seriously cold here with overnight lows around 19F (minus 7C) and a cold breeze blowing.

Ferruginous Hawk2
Ferruginous Hawk. This bird was at Dell City, but I saw this species at several locations in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Unfortunately, the wind increased just an hour after sunrise, making it hard to find any passerines, and perhaps unsurprisingly in these conditions I dipped the Golden-crowned Sparrow that had been reported here on and off for several weeks. All was not lost, however, with numerous American Tree Sparrows at this site, several Harris’s Sparrows, a big flock of Mountain Bluebirds, and nice views of several raptors active later in the morning in the breezy conditions including Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Merlin.

Harris Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow at Lake Palo Duro, December 2017.
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow, Lake Palo Duro, December 2017. This is a Panhandle winter speciality which is rarely seen further south.

I devoted much of the rest of the day to a hunt for longspurs. Three species – Lapland, McCown’s, and Chestnut-collared – winter in the Panhandle. Longspurs are never easy to find or to get good views of, and although I did find flocks in several locations, the only birds I positively identified were all Lapland Longspurs. One flock in a stubble field numbered some 250 birds, but I managed good views of no more than 10 individuals within this flock, and only very poor photos, as they were very restless and would fly up very regularly and relocate far away. It is highly likely there were a few McCown’s Longspurs among their number, but try as I might, I could not find one.

Lapland Longspur2
Lapland Longspur near Amarillo. This was the best Longspur photo I could manage despite many, many attempts!

After another very long drive and a surprisingly good overnight sleep in the car, I found myself in suburban Arlington at first light, where I was lucky to connect with a small flock of regularly wintering Rusty Blackbirds in the parking lot. I then spent four very enjoyable hours at the excellent Fort Worth Nature Center, where several Tundra Swans and a Trumpeter Swan are wintering but often prove very elusive here. Such was the case for me and I didn’t see any swans, but I did enjoy great views of a number of birds I seldom see including Fox Sparrow, Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet. No year ticks among them but this is a superb site and I will be sure to return when next in this area.

Horned Grebe
Horned Grebe at Benbrook Lake, December 2017.

My final year ticks for the trip were Horned Grebe and Eastern Towhee on the way back to Houston. This has been an exceptional first full year of birding in Texas, and with a lot of persistence and dedication (and driving!) I have managed to see more birds (415 species) than many people have on their lists after years of birding in the state. With an end-of-December trip to the LRGV still to go, I have set myself a new target of 420 species – one which I doubt I will have the opportunity to beat in 2018, but watch this space!

Mexican Jay
Mexican Jay, Madera Canyon, December 2017.
Western Meadowlark
Western Meadowlark, Balmorhea Cemetery, December 2017.
Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk near Amarillo, December 2017.

Sunday Chasing

Elegant Tern
Elegant Tern, Surfside Jetty, December 3rd 2017.

I made a dedicated (some would say crazy) attempt on Sunday to catch up with a number of year ticks and rarities scattered through the coastal Texas counties from Matagorda to Galveston. This involved making a 3.15am start and driving 180 miles from New Braunfels in order to be on the ground in rural Matagorda county at a traditional American Woodcock stakeout at first light. After that gruelling start to a Sunday, I thought that actually seeing the bird would be the easy part, but it was not to be. No sight nor sound of any Woodcocks in just over an hour of waiting and wandering around.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl, Matagorda turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

For a time, it also looked as if I would also dip my second target, Sprague’s Pipit, at a turf farm not far from the Woodcock site. Two hours of patient searching produced a Burrowing Owl and a ton of American Pipits, but no Sprague’s. I was on my way out of the area when I flushed a pipit from the verge which alighted on a nearby bare earth field, revealing its identity and pausing for long enough for me to reel off a couple of photos, before it flew high away uttering its highly distinctive squeaky call.

Spragues Pipit
Sprague’s Pipit, Matagorda County turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

One out of two so far, but I was back to dipping mode in Lake Jackson, my next stop. I bumped into Tony Frank and Brad Lirette as I arrived, who had seen the wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in Lynn Hay’s backyard just minutes before my arrival. No such luck for me, and bird activity was so low in the area that after an hour I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere. It was an odd kind of day, very humid and overcast, not the sort of conditions that encourage wintering warblers to be actively feeding or calling. Lynn Hay said that the bird visited the yard perhaps twice a day, and seeing as I had just missed it, it might be a while before it came back. Today I had neither the time nor the patience to settle in for a long wait, as the day’s potential star bird was showing well at Surfside jetty and I was impatient to go and see it.

Elegant Tern is an extremely rare visitor to Texas. The two individuals in July on North Padre Island were “unblockers” for a lot of seasoned Texas listers. I couldn’t find sufficient motivation back in the height of summer to make the eight-hour round trip drive to go and see those birds. Fortunately, fate (and finder Arman Moreno) brought many Houston-based birders an early Christmas present in the form of a first-year Elegant Tern fishing along the jetty at Surfside in Brazoria county.

Elegant Tern2
Elegant Tern, Surfside jetty, December 3rd 2017.

It was surprising to me how similar this bird was to the nearby Royal Terns in flight. Sure, there are subtle distinctions in size and build, and the bill of Elegant is definitely longer, thinner and a deeper orange-red compared to Royal, but overall it was very similar and I am sure a lot of birders would have simply overlooked it. No doubt it would have been relatively easy to pick it out among resting terns lined up on a beach, but this was an impressive find at this location as the bird was only ever seen in flight.

After getting my fill of the Elegant Tern, I drove north-east towards Galveston, stopping at San Luis Pass for a fairly easy encounter with the long-staying Fish Crow. The rule with crows is to look for the dumpsters and the local Great-tailed Grackle flock, and sure enough, my target bird was among them. It even posed for a photo while it took a late lunch of an item of trash. Not a year tick, the Fish Crow is fairly common at the edge of its range in easternmost Texas, but is almost unheard-of further west.

Fish Crow
Fish Crow, San Luis Pass, Brazoria county, December 3rd 2017.

The afternoon was becoming very gloomy and even foggy. I figured it was a waste of time sticking around on Galveston. Hindsight proved me wrong, and had I checked Texbirds or eBird I would have noticed that the Tamaulipas Crow had been relocated at East Beach. Instead I opted to head home via Randolph Park in Friendswood, where a Brown Creeper has been regularly seen for several weeks in the same small area of parkland. It felt almost like twilight when I arrived, with very gloomy conditions and almost no bird activity. However, after I while I managed to locate a very subdued mixed feeding flock, and several times I heard the distinctive high-pitched call of my target bird, but it took a good 20 minutes before I was able to catch sight of it. The ensuing record photo, in conditions of near darkness, is a contender for the worst bird photo I have ever taken, but with a little imagination the distinctive shape of a Brown Creeper can just about be discerned towards the right hand side of the image.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper (honest!), Randolph Park, Harris county, December 3rd 2017. Look towards the right hand side of the trunk, not far above the protruding branch.

Overall it was a cracking day with a lifer (Elegant Tern) and two year ticks (Sprague’s Pipit and Brown Creeper) putting me on 391 species for the year in Texas. All being well, next week’s West Texas clean-up should comfortably slingshot me past the magic 400 mark.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in New Braunfels, Comal county, December 2nd 2017.

Getting Closer to 400!

Bald Eagle
Adult Bald Eagle at San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A handful of nice year birds over the last few weeks have helped me inch slowly closer to my target of 400 species in Texas in 2017. I took full advantage of the first day of “winter” on October 29th, when temperatures plunged as low as 1C (34F) at dawn, to head down to Brazoria County – my new favorite day trip from Houston.

Anhinga
Anhinga, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A crisp, sunny San Bernard NWR was absolutely teeming with birds (70 species logged), with lots of new winter arrivals in on the cold front, including no fewer than 5 species flagged by eBird as needing further description. Notable among these were a female Hooded Merganser and a very late Least Bittern. It was especially pleasing to get an excellent photo of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, showing its distinctive undertail pattern, which although not flagged in eBird is a scarce bird in this part of Texas:

Ash-throated Flycatcher2
Ash-throated Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Late morning I drove the relatively short distance to Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, a lovely, peaceful small reserve which today was well stocked with a great range of late migrants. Outstanding among these was a Clay-colored Sparrow, associating with a White-crowned Sparrow and several Lincoln’s Sparrows. The sparrow flock kept returning to feed on the short grass of the sanctuary pathways but the birds were extremely wary, diving back into cover at the slightest hint of danger, and it took quite some time before I was able to get passable photos to confirm the identification. Clay-colored Sparrow is a migrant mainly through Central Texas, and is very uncommon on the Upper Texas Coast with just a handful of records annually.

Clay-colored Sparrow5
Clay-colored Sparrow, Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, October 29th 2017.

The following weekend I was back in New Braunfels, and with a report of several Lark Buntings at South Evans Road Lake on the Saturday – just an hour’s drive away – I decided to try for these birds early on Sunday. This was another spot with really high levels of bird activity, and finally I located two splendid Lark Buntings in a bare field alongside the road. Say’s Phoebe was another good one to find here.

Lark Bunting
Lark Buntings, South Evans Road, Bexar County, November 5th 2017.

I detoured back via Wilson County, as I had never birded that county before, where I grabbed some opportunistic photos of a Peregrine. Shortly afterwards, at about 10.05am, I passed through the small village of Sutherland Springs, one hour and fifteen minutes before Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a church congregation, killing 26 people. The shooter came from New Braunfels and there was every chance I passed him on the road as I headed back that way. I hope this is as close as I ever get to such a horrifying and tragic event.

Peregrine
Peregrine near Sutherland Springs, Wilson County, November 5th 2017.

A beautiful cool, crisp winter day on November 14th tempted me to take my lunch hour in Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, just two minutes down the road from my place of work in Houston. This turned out to be an excellent decision, with a Winter Wren found and photographed at the boardwalk near the cabin. Finally, one of Texas’s tiniest birds was safely on my list – Winter Wren is an uncommon and somewhat tricky-to-find winter visitor to eastern parts of the state. This bird was still present at the time of writing on November 21st and being seen intermittently for birders trying for it, so perhaps it will remain throughout the winter.

Winter Wren
Winter Wren, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, November 14th 2017.

Late in the afternoon of Friday 17th November, news broke of a Sabine’s Gull at Kemah Boardwalk. A less likely birding hotspot can hardly be imagined – this place is a theme park complete with noisy rollercoasters, restaurants and bars, and hundreds of members of the non-birding general public. On the plus side, non-birders do have a tendency to enjoy feeding the birds (despite the posted signs warning them not to!), and when I arrived at the site on Saturday afternoon the Sabine’s Gull was scavenging some easy pickings alongside the local Laughing Gulls. On several occasions, it passed the boardwalk at handrail height, so close I could have reached out and touched it. In any case, it was too close to even get a decent photo with my camera – I probably would have gotten better results with my iPhone – although out of my many attempts there were at least a couple of acceptable record shots:

Sabines Gull4
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.
Sabines Gull5
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.

It was something of a relief to get this bird so easily, as gulls can be unpredictable and it was lucky the bird decided to remain for a second day. Sabine’s Gull was an excellent way to mark the milestone of my 400th species in Texas – and considering the location, there was of course a bar very close by in which to celebrate in the excellent company of my wife Jenna and birding pal James Rieman!

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017.

I headed west to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve early on Sunday, in the hopes of connecting with Sprague’s Pipit for the year list, as well as having perhaps a 10% chance of seeing one of the chickens that give the reserve its name. The Attwater’s Prairie Chickens here have been relocated from former coastal prairie, and represent the only remaining population of this species in the world. Purists wouldn’t count them on their lists, but according to the ABA they are perfectly acceptable. Anyway, I was spared having to wrestle with any ethical listing dilemmas as I didn’t see a Prairie Chicken. Unfortunately I didn’t connect with any Sprague’s Pipits either. Still, it was a beautiful cold and sunny morning, and sparrows of eight species were begging me to photograph them – including the often-tricky Le Conte’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, which I managed just-about-acceptable record shots of:

LeContes Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. In my limited experience this skulking species is very responsive to pishing, and this bird jumped straight out of the grass and into a nearby bush as soon as the first “psh psh” escaped my lips. Getting a photo was another matter because the bird invariably kept itself partly concealed by twigs, despite showing well. Very strong early morning sunlight is another obvious factor in this shot!
Grasshopper Sparrow2
Grasshopper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. This individual sat up on the fence for ages, but I was just a little bit too far away to get a clear shot.
Vesper Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. Again, not quite as sharp as I wanted,  but I couldn’t fault the bird for posing obligingly for several minutes!
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. A much sharper photo, despite the bird being in view for just a fraction of a second.

Finally, it has been a bumper late autumn for birds in the yard of my in-laws’ weekend home in New Braunfels, Comal County. The winter visitors are back, and species counts over a typical 1 to 2 hour birding session regularly exceed 35, with 46 species seen on one morning last weekend.

Zone-tailed Hawk1
Zone-tailed Hawk, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.

Recent “firsts for the yard” include a long-awaited Zone-tailed Hawk for two consecutive days, hanging out in tall cypresses beside the river; up to 4 Pine Siskins flocking with American and Lesser Goldfinches; at least one Spotted Towhee apparently settled in for the winter in a thicket in the front yard; an extremely late (or overwintering?) Chestnut-sided Warbler; and most bizarre of all – though not countable on my list! – an Orange-cheeked Waxbill, which presumably hopped out of a cage somewhere locally.

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.
Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, seen at Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels on various dates in November.

Finally, a pair of Green Kingfishers on the adjacent Guadelupe River seem to be nest-building in a sandy bank – I wonder what tiny percentage of birders in the US can claim to have this species breeding in their back yard?

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017 – a new bird for my yard list.
Orange-cheeked Waxbill
Orange-cheeked Waxbill, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017. Unringed and wary, but definitely originating from a cage!

New birds added: Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Winter Wren, Sabine’s Gull, Pine Siskin.

Total Texas 2017 year list: 388

Total Texas life list: 400

Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.
Sedge Wren
Sedge Wren, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017. This bird is numerous in Texas coastal grasslands in winter, and although a skulker it responds well to “pishing”.
Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Franklin’s Gull, October 22nd

Franklins Gull2
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

Today I was on the hunt for Franklin’s Gull, a regular migrant through Texas but not an easy bird to find on the Upper Texas Coast. In spring, it seems to be a case of being in the right place at the right time, as migrants pass through quickly on their way north. On their return journey in late fall, individuals or groups may linger on the coast with flocks of Laughing Gulls.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

The San Luis Pass at the far south-western end of Galveston Island has regular records of this species in October and November, so this seemed to be an excellent place to start looking. I approached from the Brazoria County end, and on the way up the Blue Water Highway I enjoyed a fiery sunrise. The weather was sultry, humid, and completely still, with temperatures already hovering around 80F (27C) by 8.00am – warm for the time of year.

Sunrise2
Sunrise on the Blue Water Highway, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

A quick stop at the Kelly Hamby nature trail proved worthwhile, with two Palm Warblers seen well (and one bird photographed). This is an uncommon migrant and scarce winter visitor in Texas. I was getting absolutely ravaged by mosquitoes at this location, so after 15 minutes it was a relief to get back into the car.

Palm Warbler1
Record shot of one of two Palm Warblers at the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

I drove a short distance to the San Luis Pass County Park, still on the Brazoria side of the pass. This was a really productive site, with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing among the Laughing Gulls, and plenty of birds to look at including a lone winter-plumaged Red Knot, several American Oystercatchers, and a Long-billed Curlew. Curiously, all the shorebirds allowed a very close approach – seemingly they are well used to the large numbers of fishermen and other members of the general public also using this site.

Lesser Black Backed Gull
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (with Laughing Gulls), San Luis County Park, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017. An increasing visitor to coastal Texas.
Red Knot2
Red Knot, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This can often be a hard bird to find in coastal Texas, probably reflecting its sharp global decline.
American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatchers, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. Present in small numbers all along the upper Texas coast, but never common.
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This bird was unusually confiding and allowed a close approach.

I happened to know that just 50 miles to the north, a powerful weather front with high winds and heavy rain was pounding Houston. It was exciting to watch the gradual approach of heavy, pendulous black clouds from the north. Even though I was expecting it, the front’s arrival was very dramatic. One moment it was completely calm, and the next, gusting winds lifted the sand off the beach and whipped up white-tipped waves on the sea. The temperature plunged from 81F (27C) to 64F (18C) in the space of just a few minutes, and lightning started crashing down to accompany the horizontal driving rain.

Galveston Bridge
Arrival of the weather front at San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Birding was out of the question while the weather front was doing its thing, so I drove across the bridge onto Galveston and waited it out. As soon as the rain stopped, I wandered around Lafitte’s Cove for an hour, where there was no evidence whatsoever of a front-induced fallout of late migrants. I hadn’t forgotten my Franklin’s Gull quest, so I retraced my steps back to San Luis Pass, this time on the Galveston side of the bridge. There was just one modestly-sized flock of perhaps 40 Laughing Gulls here, and a quick scan did not reveal my target bird. Still, the sun was shining now and conditions were very pleasant, so I lingered in this spot for a while to see if anything turned up. Just before leaving, I had another very careful look through the gull flock, and suddenly I found what I had been looking for – a lone first-winter Franklin’s Gull.

Franklins Gull1
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, with adult winter Forster’s Tern in the foreground, and several Laughing Gulls, illustrating the size difference, San Luis Pass, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

This was only my second-ever Franklin’s – my first being one at Cheddar Reservoir in England more than 17 years ago – and I have to admit that it didn’t leap out at me the way I thought it would. Sure, it seemed noticeably smaller and “cuter” than the surrounding Laughing Gulls, but this distinction was subtle rather than obvious. With prolonged observation in excellent light, I gradually familiarized myself with the bird and the differences began to stand out more, things like the extensive dark hood, swollen white eyelids, shorter legs, and daintier and less drooping bill than Laughing Gull.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

With my target bird clinched and photographed, I returned to Brazoria County across the bridge, and as I passed Freeport I spotted a large flock of perhaps 350 Laughing Gulls loafing in a gravel parking lot. Stopping for a quick look revealed at least 4 adult Franklin’s Gulls among their number, so in the end I was able to get Franklin’s Gull at two locations in two different counties – a most satisfying way to pick up a personal Texas first!

Franklins Gull3
Adult Franklin’s Gull near Freeport, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Finally, I decided to drop in at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, to see if any birds were active after the passing of the front, now that the weather was once again clear and sunny with much lower humidity than early this morning. I had never visited this site before – it is known to be a hotspot in the spring, and it is certainly prepared with the birds in mind, with several blinds and water holes and a nice variety of trees and bushes for tired migrants in a very compact area.

Beach at San Luis
The beach at San Luis, Brazoria County, ahead of the dramatic weather front on October 22nd 2017.

I spent an hour here and birds were very flighty and elusive, but I eventually racked up a few migrants including an Eastern Wood-Pewee, an American Redstart and a Blue Grosbeak. I’ll be sure to come back to Quintana in spring – like most wooded sites along the Upper Texas Coast it should be a good bet for a large variety of warblers, vireos, tanagers etc.

2017 Texas Year List: 383

Black-crowned Night Heron
Adult Black-crowned Night Heron, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, Texas, October 22nd 2017.