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

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, July 2019

Graces Warbler
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon. A specialty of the southwestern USA, this species only just reaches Texas and can be seen in small numbers in high-altitude pine forests in the Guadalupe Mountains.

What if I told you that, even over the busy July 4th weekend, there is a place in Texas where you can turn up and camp – without making a reservation – at a near-empty campsite in a pristine mountain wilderness, with an 80-mile network of lightly trafficked, breathtakingly gorgeous hiking trails starting just a stone’s throw from your tent?

As unlikely as it may sound, there is such a place – Dog Canyon, located in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The downside is that this Utopia is nearly 800 miles from Houston, putting it out of reach for anything less than a 4-day weekend or for anyone unprepared to do a serious amount of driving.

In essence, you drive to an already very remote spot – Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico – then take a 60-mile dead-end road that loops around the northern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains and at the last minute – two hundred yards before the end of the road – sneaks back into Texas.

Texas NM Border at Dog Canyon
Crossing back from New Mexico into Texas, just a few hundred yards before the Dog Canyon campground.

At Dog Canyon, I was able to combine five of the things I like most: birding, exercise, remote places, long road trips, and being alone. And I don’t care if I sound antisocial – this really was a wonderful experience.

Day One:

I left Houston at lunchtime on Wednesday and headed west, arriving late afternoon at a targeted stop for Varied Bunting. Easter Pageant Hill is located just off i-10 at Junction, in Kimble county, some 300 miles west of Houston. With temperatures still in the high 90s, I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but literally one of the first birds I laid eyes on was a handsome male Varied Bunting singing its heart out from the top of a small tree. This completed my sweep of all 4 buntings (Painted, Indigo, Lazuli, and Varied) in Kimble county in 2019.

Varied Bunting2
Male Varied Bunting at Easter Pageant Hill, near Junction, Texas.

With a quicker-than-expected result here, I aimed high and decided to try and make the Fort Lancaster rest area before nightfall. This remote spot near Sheffield is a renowned location for the very local Gray Vireo – indeed, it is the only place I have ever seen this species. The sun was already dipping close to the horizon when I arrived at the site, but my luck continued; I soon heard and briefly saw two Gray Vireos here at this picturesque canyon, with the surprise appearance of a flock of Bushtits an unexpected bonus.

Fort Lancaster Sunset2
Sunset at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster. This place sums up West Texas for me: wild and remote, empty and (apart from the birds and the wind) silent.
Fort Lancaster Road
Sunset on the road at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster

I considered sleeping in my car overnight here, which I have done before at this location, but I was feeling full of energy after my success with the birds, so I continued on the long road west.

One thing about car camping in Texas in July is that it is HOT, and my plan was to aim for higher altitudes where the weather was hopefully a little cooler. It was just before midnight when I arrived at the Lawrence Wood picnic area on a remote road in the Davis Mountains, a spooky place in the woods with literally no passing traffic all night, but thankfully, cool temperatures allowing a relaxing night’s sleep in the car.

Day Two:

Morning Coffee
Morning coffee at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.

I awoke before dawn hoping to hear a Western Screech-owl or Mexican Whip-poor-will, but I was out of luck with the night birds here. Daybreak, however, produced a slew of good sightings at this excellent spot, including first-of-the-year Plumbeous Vireo, Western Bluebird, Gray Flycatcher, Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Towhee and Black-headed Grosbeak – which are all common birds in the mountains of west Texas but rare or absent further east. A Hutton’s Vireo was also a year tick and an excellent bonus bird, one which I knew I would be very unlikely to see in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Male Black-headed Grosbeak at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Woodhouses Scrub Jay
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Fort Davis Highway
Highway in the Davis Mountains. It really is no chore driving hundreds of miles on roads like this.

I then wasted some time trying to find Lucy’s Warbler at an out-of-range location near Van Horn where a pair had been seen on territory earlier in the season. When I finally arrived at Van Horn a little later, I was dismayed to discover that I was still 170 miles – a 3-hour drive – from my final destination. It was starting to dawn on me that Dog Canyon is a seriously remote place!

I wasn’t complaining about the scenery, though, with the road from Van Horn passing through expansive deserts before climbing up into the Guadalupe Mountains, then crossing over into New Mexico. Dog Canyon is at the far northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a two hour journey by road from the national park headquarters at Pine Springs, or a full day’s hike.

Dog Canyon campsite
View across to my campsite (orange tent!) at Dog Canyon.

I was getting a little nervous as I neared Dog Canyon, because there are just 9 campsites. Reservations cannot be made – the sites are allocated on a “first come first served” basis – and I suspected that the July 4th week would be one of their busiest times of year. However, I needn’t have worried, as I was literally the first person to arrive (although perhaps 5 other campsites were occupied later).

Dog Canyon is a perfect spot; each site is equipped with a camping “pad” and picnic table, and with my pick of all the sites I could select the most shaded one. There is a bathroom with sink and flushing toilet but no shower (although taking a “stand-up” shower at the sink is straightforward enough).

I wandered around the campsite area for the rest of the afternoon, but the weather was unusually hot – even up here at 6,000 feet above sea level – and I didn’t see many birds.

Dog Canyon Indian Meadows
View from the Indian Meadows trail, which is the shortest and most easily accessible trail from the Dog Canyon campsite.
Dog Canyon sunset
Sunset at Dog Canyon.

Day Three:

I am reliably informed that the best way to truly relax on vacation is to have no idea what the time is. Dog Canyon is a great place to follow this philosophy – most of Texas (apart from the far western tip near El Paso) lies in the Central time zone, whereas New Mexico is on Mountain Time, one hour behind. By the time I had driven up from Van Horn, cut through New Mexico, and dropped back into the very edge of Texas again, my phone (and me) were both thoroughly confused. My car clock also changes automatically with time zones, so I had no help there either. I set my alarm super-early to make 100% sure I was up and about before sunrise – which turned out to be a good move because the first thing I heard as I awoke was a Common Poorwill calling from a rocky slope near the campsite.

Loading plenty of food and water into my day pack, I set off on the Tejas Trail up Dog Canyon. I had received some great advice from other birders that the best way to find birds here is by walking in the bed of the canyon itself, not on the trail along the edge. This worked out well, and by the time I had reached the “switchbacks” further up the canyon, I had already amassed a great list including Black-throated Gray and Grace’s Warblers, Cordilleran and Gray Flycatchers, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mountain Chickadee, and plenty of Western Tanagers and Black-chinned Sparrows.

Graces Warbler2
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

This single-track trail then passes through some open, exposed areas, where the birds were fewer in number but a Zone-tailed Hawk passed overhead. After passing the intersection with the McKittrick Canyon trail, at around 7,700 feet altitude, the Tejas Trail gradually enters forested areas once again; some high-altitude pine forest birds such as Steller’s Jay, Hairy Woodpecker and Dark-eyed Junco began making appearances along here. I got as far as the Tejas Camp, around 7 miles from my starting point, before turning around and retracing my steps back to Dog Canyon for a total day hike of just over 14 miles and an elevation gain of around 2,000 feet.

Bowl View
View of pine trees nestled in The Bowl at the top of the Guadalupe Mountains, as viewed from the Tejas Trail near the turn-off to McKittrick Canyon.

By the time I turned around, it was already early afternoon, and at this altitude the sun is very strong. In remote areas like this, it pays to be hyper-aware of things like drinking water, sun exposure, and exhaustion levels – especially considering that I was totally, utterly and completely alone; I saw not a single person on the trails all day. For some, this would be alarming; for me, it was inspiring and wonderful. We get so few chances to be alone in our busy lives.

Western Tanager
Male Western Tanager, Dog Canyon.

I was also constantly aware of the potential threat posed by bears and especially Mountain Lions, both of which inhabit the Guadalupe Mountains in good numbers. I would have loved to encounter either one of those – at a safe distance, of course! – and I spent some time scanning distant ridges and slopes but to no avail.

The birding was still good on the way back, even in mid-afternoon, and the highlight was discovering a family party of Virginia’s Warblers near the top of Dog Canyon – a life bird for me and one of the main targets of my trip.

Virginias Warbler
Virginia’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

Day Four:

Having cleaned up on nearly all the Dog Canyon specialties already, I was anxious to try and get into more of the high-altitude pine forest habitat I had just touched the edges of during yesterday’s long hike. From the map, it looked like the best place to do this would be from the other side of the mountain, starting at Frijole Ranch and taking the Bear Canyon trail up to “The Bowl” – a two-mile-wide relict habitat of old-growth pine forest at an altitude of over 8,000 feet above sea level. The Bowl is literally the only place in Texas where certain Rocky Mountain species – Red Crossbill, Pygmy Nuthatch, and sometimes Juniper Titmouse – can be found at the very southern edge of their range.

I packed up my tent in the dark and drove out of Dog Canyon, flushing two Common Poorwills off the road when a few miles into New Mexico. It takes a full two hours to drive around to the opposite side of the mountains; when I arrived at Frijole Ranch the sun was already up and I hiked as quickly as possible so as to make up time and maximize my opportunities to find my target species at the top.

Frijole View
Looking back from the Frijole Trail towards the Frijole Ranch area. The serious climb had not started yet …

A pair of Scott’s Orioles along the Frijole Trail was a welcome distraction from my march, and a Texas year tick, completing the full sweep of orioles in Texas for the year (Baltimore, Bullock’s, Orchard, Hooded, Altamira, Audubon’s and Scott’s).

Bear Canyon trail turned out to be a serious workout. Frijole Ranch, where I parked the car, is located at 5,500 feet above sea level; the point where the Bear Canyon trail arrives at The Bowl is almost exactly 8,000 feet up. Much of that altitude gain takes place in the last 2 miles of the trail, and it was as tough of a hike as I have ever done, anywhere (including the Himalayas!). Canyon Wrens taunted me all the way up, and a pair of Cordilleran Flycatchers gave great views in a shaded, rocky gully.

Cordilleran Flycatcher
Cordilleran Flycatcher at the Bear Canyon trail, Guadalupe Mountains NP.

For birders, The Bowl is a kind of fairytale wonderland where it feels like anything can turn up. It is a unique habitat in Texas and also – due to the difficulty of access – one that is rarely visited by birders. There is a real sense that discoveries can still be made up here. It’s a gorgeous place, with the fragrant pines providing shade and the high altitude making for temperatures in the low to mid 70s – even on a July afternoon when the valleys and deserts far below swelter at over 100 degrees.

Bowl Top
View from the edge of The Bowl towards the Guadalupe Peak.

Birding was slow at first, until I discovered an area with lot of bird activity, along the trail downhill from the rusty water tank ….. basically a right turn then a left turn from the top of the Bear Canyon trail. The highlight was a flock of 5 Red Crossbills, likely a very scarce resident bird up here but seldom seen (my sighting was the first record of this species anywhere in the Guadalupes this year).

I also enjoyed views of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, Grace’s, and Virginia Warblers, and several species that in other areas of Texas are usually only available in winter: Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, Hermit Thrush, and Spotted Towhee.

Red Crossbill
Record shot of one of the Red Crossbills I discovered at The Bowl. These birds flew around a lot but – as always with Crossbills – were easily located in flight by their loud calls. I was lucky when one spent a few seconds perched in a nearby pine, allowing me to take this photo.

With dark clouds building, and distant rumbles of thunder, I had to cut short my wandering in The Bowl and start making my way down. Getting caught in a thunderstorm on the exposed reaches of the Bear Canyon trail would have been no joke – dangerous even! – and fortunately I got back to the car before the storm got too close. It took just an hour to get down, compared to almost three hours going up!

Bear Canyon
View from near the top of the Bear Canyon trail, looking back at the trail winding up the mountainside. Did I mention that this is a seriously hardcore hike?!

Day Five:

I overnighted near Van Horn – thankfully, evening storms kept the temperatures unseasonably low – and before dawn I was checking out the area near Culberson County airport for year list targets Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. The quail proved to be easy to find (and completed my sweep of all three Texas quails seen and photographed in 2019), but I drew a blank with the gnatcatcher and thrasher here. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher made it onto my list a little later, thanks to an opportune roadside stop at a washout on the road towards Marfa …. the habitat looked good for this species and my hunch proved to be correct!

Welcome to Marfa
The road to Marfa, a town which has become a hipster hangout in west Texas and is a curious combination of old and new: the ubiquitous Dairy Queen and Napa Auto Parts stores can be found next to cool organic cafes, and old ranch trucks fight for parking spots with new Subarus.

Two out of three isn’t bad, and I continued towards Marfa, grabbing some Presidio county ticks beside the road including Burrowing Owl, Swainson’s Hawk, and Curve-billed Thrasher.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl beside the road to Marfa.

The reason for the detour (and scenic drive) was to take in the long-staying Yellow-green Vireo, which has been singing its heart out in a riverside park near Marathon all summer. This attractive vireo is normally a rare passage migrant on the Texas coast; a summering bird is very unusual. As soon as I arrived at the site and opened the car door, I could hear the bird singing very loudly, and it took just a few seconds to locate.

Yellow-green Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo near Marathon.

After that, I hit the road back to New Braunfels, and the following morning to Houston. It’s a long, long way back from west Texas, but somehow the drive never seems too bad …. the speed limit on i10 along here is 80mph, and traffic is always very light, so the miles get eaten up pretty fast.

Logistics:

A four-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary for this trip – there is very little off-road or even dirt-road driving involved. With that said, my Subaru Outback is probably the perfect vehicle for this kind of adventure, with plenty of luggage storage in the back – and the reassurance of high ground clearance and 4WD should it become necessary!

One challenge on long trips like this is eating healthily. Rural Texas is not renowned for healthy roadside eating options – and indeed, in remote areas in the Guadalupes, there is no food available for purchase at all.

I figured that even in my “Coolest” cooler, ice would probably not last for 5 days in July, so I packed only foods that did not need to be kept cool. My healthy pantry contained the following:

  • Heather’s Choice freeze-dried meals (grass-fed bison chili, Sockeye Salmon chowder, and African Peanut Stew varieties – all of which were delicious).
  • RX Bars
  • Larabars
  • Organic apples
  • Natural organic peanut butter
  • Nature’s Choice gluten free crackers
  • Bumblebee tuna sachets (various flavors)
  • Organic oats
  • Single-serving Tetrapaks of organic milk (I would have preferred coconut milk or almond milk, but I couldn’t find any small sizes in the store and it was too late to order online).
  • Trail mix (raisins, cashews, almonds and walnuts)
  • Three one-gallon water containers (drinking water for refills is available at Dog Canyon, as well as other trailheads in the Guadalupes).
  • Freshly ground Bulletproof coffee, with Bulletproof instamix.
  • Small saucepan
  • Aero Press coffee maker.

This was the first outing for my new North Face 2-person tent and my Coleman camping stove – both of which were excellent.

I ended the trip on 398 bird species in Texas in 2019 so far …. already ahead of my entire total of 384 for the whole of 2018.

Prada
The iconic Prada store, in the middle of nowhere about 20 miles north of Marfa. Hard to pass by without taking a photo!

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.

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.

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.

Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, September 23rd-24th

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Estero Llano Grande SP, September 23rd 2017.

It’s possible to pack quite a lot into a weekend when you put your mind to it. Late Friday afternoon I drove from Houston to Rockport to meet my old pal Jason Loghry, who I had not seen since I lived in South Korea in 2009-11. After a few hours sleep we headed to Laredo, on the Mexican border. We were at the Max A Mandel golf course by first light on Saturday.

Red-billed Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon, Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd. One of only a handful of US locations for this tropical species, whose range seemingly extends just a few hundred yards into the country along the Texas/Mexico border.

I’ve never birded by golf cart before and it was fun, and after a bit of searching we found our target birds Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater, while trying to avoid getting in the way of Mexican gangsters (or so it seemed) who were playing a golf tournament.

Birding by golf cart
Birding by golf cart …. a novel experience!

We also had an interesting bird here that appeared to be a very early Brewer’s Blackbird, a species that does not usually show up in Texas until much later in the fall. However, something about the bird was not quite “right” and after review of the photos (and consultation with local expert Mary Gustafson) we concluded that it was a Great-tailed Grackle that had not yet grown its long tail back after its molt. Apart from the bill being a little chunkier than normal for a Brewer’s Blackbird, it resembled one extremely closely:

Brewers Blackbird3
Great-tailed Grackle (with a Killdeer in the foreground), Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

Later, we followed the course of the Rio Grande southwards, stopping in at a gorgeous and extremely hot Salineño, where the shade temperature peaked at 107 degrees F (41 degrees C) at 3.00pm. This site yielded distant views of Ringed Kingfisher, several Hooded and lots of stunning Baltimore Orioles, and a scattering of migrants including Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Rio Grande at Salineno
Rio Grande at Salineno, September 23rd 2017. A brutally hot day for late September.

We continued south and by late afternoon we were at Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the best nature reserves in Texas, where we stayed until dark. It was Jason’s first visit to this wonderful reserve and as usual there was an excellent range of species to be seen including the ever-popular stake-outs at their usual spots here – Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech-Owl.

Estero Llano Grande
Late afternoon in paradise …. the Estero Llano Grande State Park, September 23rd 2017.

After dinner, we drove out into the boonies and set up camp for the night. By pure chance we ended up camping beside a nature reserve, the Sal de Rey. Eastern Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl were calling nearby during the night, and at dawn on Sunday a flock of Lesser Nighthawks hawked insects overhead. Two Royal Terns flew over, very rare inland, and we easily found our target Cassin’s Sparrow (and a photogenic Groove-billed Ani) in this area.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani near the Sal de Rey, September 24th 2017.

While it was still early, we drove for 45 minutes towards the coast to a known Botteri’s Sparrow site. It is getting a bit late in the year for these summer visitors, but when we heard one calling briefly, we knew they must still be around. Sure enough, eventually a male started singing, and after much persistence we both managed some good (albeit brief) views of this most skulking of sparrows. It was beginning to get hot and by lunchtime we were on the road back north.

1,000 miles driven, c.110 bird species seen including 7 year ticks, bringing my 2017 Texas year list to 381, just 19 away from my target of 400. A great weekend and wonderful to catch up with my old friend.

Lifer: Botteri’s Sparrow (total 2,228).
USA ticks: Red-billed Pigeon, White-collared Seedeater (total 437).
2017 Texas year ticks: Lesser Nighthawk, Gray Hawk, Ringed Kingfisher, Cassin’s Sparrow (total 381).

Swainsons Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk at the Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

Big Bend NP and West Texas, May 27th-31st

Big Bend Scene2
One of Big Bend NP’s many stunning landscapes.

With five days to play with at the end of May, and migration in this part of the world almost completely finished for the season, I decided an excellent course of action would be to make the long trip out to West Texas for the first time. This is no small undertaking, as distances in Texas are vast – from Houston to Big Bend National Park doesn’t look like much on a map, but in fact amounts to 630 miles, or about 10 hours of driving. For European birders, this is the equivalent of driving from Plymouth to Inverness, or from Paris to Barcelona.

Chisos Basin Approach
The road to the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park. Surrounded by endless expanses of low-lying desert, the basin is a green mountain oasis at around 6,000 feet above sea level, supporting a huge range of resident and transient wildlife.

A rental car is a sensible option for this kind of journey, and as luck would have it, I got a free upgrade at the rental office from my pre-booked economy car to a small SUV. Seeing as my plan was to sleep in the car for the four nights of the trip, this was welcome news indeed.

101 Degrees
Day one, Big Bend National Park. The air temperature at 6.00pm was still hovering around 101 degrees F (39 degrees C). Fortunately, a cool front passed through overnight and the following days were much more comfortable.

I hit the road west at 5.00am on Saturday morning, with my first major stop after about 300 miles being the South Llano State Park. This is an excellently managed small reserve, with several bird blinds from which many interesting species can be seen – including the main specialty of the site, the range-restricted, endangered Black-capped Vireo. After just a five-minute wait at the first bird blind, an immaculately-plumaged Black-capped Vireo came down for a drink and I was able to fire off a few record shots – although the focus was not quite as sharp as I would have liked.

Black-capped Vireo
Black-capped Vireo, South Llano State Park, May 27th 2018.

Other birds seen at close quarters from the blind included Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Black-throated, Field, and Lark Sparrows.

Painted Bunting
Female Painted Bunting – a subtly attractive bird without the over-the-top gaudiness of the male. For some reason, male Painted Buntings are allergic to my camera and despite plenty of close views at South Llano SP, none of my shots came out any good at all.
Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. This species is not found at all in East Texas, although it is very common in arid scrublands further west.

It was early afternoon by the time I reached the Fort Lancaster Overlook, which Sheridan Coffey had informed me was a good spot for Gray Vireo. Unfortunately it was the exact wrong time of day to find one – it was extremely hot and quite breezy up there at the top of the canyon, with very little bird activity – but the stop proved well worthwhile with several Zone-tailed Hawks gliding overhead. Zone-tailed Hawk closely resembles the abundant Turkey Vulture, but can readily be distinguished by the broad white band on the tail. They are uncommon in Texas and in fact often associate with Turkey Vultures – it is possible they evolved to resemble the relatively harmless vultures as a way of getting closer to their prey.

Scaled Quail
Scaled Quail. Seen all over the place in the west, especially along roadsides. This one was in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP, on May 29th 2017.

Further west, the landscape becomes increasingly more barren and rugged. I left the interstate highway behind and took a more scenic and remote route to Marathon via Dryden and Sanderson. At one point, I drove for 60 miles without seeing another car nor any sign of human incursion on the land – apart from the endless smooth asphalt, of course. It pays to keep the gas tank topped up out here, and I was careful to not let it drop below half full. Alongside the road, some typical western species started to appear more regularly, birds such as Greater Roadrunner and Say’s Phoebe. Just outside Marathon I had my first Cassin’s Kingbird and Scaled Quails of the trip.

Big Bend Entrance
Big Bend National Park entrance, south of Marathon.

I didn’t have a definite plan for Big Bend National Park, but it was extremely hot in the late afternoon, and I decided that my best prospect for a good night’s sleep in the car would be at higher altitudes where the air would hopefully be cooler. The Chisos Basin is simply an amazing place, a bowl of oak forest and green meadows at over 6,000 feet protected by tall mountains and crags. It is the only US location for Colima Warbler, and also supports a big range of other birds plus bears and mountain lions. It is also very popular with hikers – and busy on this Memorial Day weekend – so I decided a very early start would be needed the next day in order to hike up to Colima Warbler habitat before the passing foot traffic got too heavy.

Before nightfall, I spent an hour wandering around the lodges area, and enjoyed some colorful and charismatic birds including Varied Bunting, Cactus Wren, Scott’s Oriole, and Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker. This one was in the Davis Mountains, but it was also numerous in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend National Park. This is a common bird in some states of the US, but in Texas only just makes it into the far west.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep in the back of my rented Jeep Compass, I was on the Pinnacles Trail by 6.45am for a steady climb up the mountain. While there were definitely birds of interest from time to time along the route, they were not abundant and species variety was lower than I had been expecting. Nonetheless, some easy lifers presented themselves: White-throated Swift, Mexican Jay, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Once into the correct oak habitat for Colima Warbler, especially along Boot Canyon Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail, they proved to be fairly common, and one particular singing bird allowed a close approach:

Colima Warbler2
Colima Warbler, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

Other interesting birds seen during my 10-mile hike included Hepatic Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee, and a Willow Flycatcher, while Mexican Jays and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were simply abundant, although bird activity declined sharply once the heat started to build in the late morning.

Western Wood Pewee
Western Wood-Pewee, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

I went for a drive in the afternoon down as far as the Mexican border at Rio Grande Village, with the best bird a Common Black Hawk, which I would have driven right past had it not been for the sign telling me it was there:

Common Black Hawk Nesting Area
Common Black Hawk (on the dead branch in the background), which I would have missed completely while driving past had it not been for the handy sign.

Sheridan had told me of another excellent site, the water treatment plant below the Chisos Basin campsite, which was a good bet for the special hummingbirds of the region. It soon became obvious why: the outfall from the plant created a small stream that not only provided a constant source of running water in this dry area, but also allowed for the proliferation of some hummingbird-friendly vegetation.

However, hummingbirds were far from abundant even at this favored location – I saw just three individuals, but fortunately they constituted one of each of my target species: Broad-tailed, Lucifer, and the splendid Blue-throated Hummingbird:

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Blue-throated Hummingbird, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017. A relatively large and very impressive species!

Among the other birds taking advantage of the stream were a late migrant MacGillivray’s Warbler and several Indigo Buntings, which might have been slightly out of their normal range as they were flagged in eBird:

Indigo Bunting
Male Indigo Bunting, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017.

It was hard to drag myself away from this bird-filled spot but I had a key target to look for – Lucy’s Warbler – at the Cottonwood Campsite in Castolon, which is still within Big Bend NP but some 40 road miles from the Chisos Basin. Unfortunately I left it a bit late, and didn’t arrive at the campsite until late morning, by which time the Lucy’s Warblers weren’t singing and proved impossible to locate in windy conditions in the tall cottonwood trees.

There were lots of other birds to see here, however, including numerous Vermilion Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, and a tricky oriole which I decided in the end was a young male Orchard Oriole and not the hoped-for Hooded Oriole.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe, Big Bend NP Cottonwood Campsite, May 29th 2017.

With the heat of the day fast approaching, I had to choose whether to wait it out and have another crack at Lucy’s Warbler in the late afternoon or early the next day, or use the “dead time” to drive somewhere else. With a number of new birds available in the Davis Mountains, 2.5 hours to the north, the decision was an easy one. Along the route, some interesting birds were spotted including Chihuahuan Raven and Burrowing Owl, and several attractive picnic areas that were dripping with birds including a very late migrant Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler. This distinctive and beautiful bird looks highly likely to be re-split from the (in my opinion) rather more prosaic-looking eastern Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler later this year.

The weather looked iffy higher in the mountains when I arrived at the tiny and cell-phone reception-free town of Fort Davis, prompting me to make what turned out to be an excellent spur-of-the-moment decision to stay in the lowlands and continue north to Lake Balmorhea. I knew Clark’s Grebe could be seen here, but I was surprised to also find Western Grebe, as the range map in the field guide shows them as being present at this site only in winter:

Western Grebe
Western Grebe, Lake Balmorhea, May 29th 2017.

I also lucked out with a Phainopepla, an enigmatic and sought-after West Texas bird which I wasn’t expecting to see here, and a handsome male Bullock’s Oriole right next to the road.

Davis Mountains
Davis Mountains scenery, May 30th 2017.

The Davis Mountains State Park provided an excellent night halt and I even sneaked in to the camping area to use the showers, which was much-needed as my only “shower” in the last three days had been a late afternoon bathe in the Rio Grande. The next morning I started out at the Lawrence Wood picnic area, one of the few areas where some of the high-altitude forest habitat of the Davis Mountains can be accessed.

It was surprisingly cold here at 6.45am, with temperatures of around 48 degrees F (9 degrees C), but bird activity was high and I saw several species here that are hard to see elsewhere in Texas: White-breasted Nuthatch, Plumbeous Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, and Western Bluebird. I happened to locate the nests of both Plumbeous Vireo and Western Bluebird, the former incubating eggs and the latter feeding young at a tree hole nesting site.

The rest of the day turned out a little less successfully, as I couldn’t find a way to get close to any other areas of good habitat. I did however find a man-made pond next to Highway 118 which had a succession of birds coming in to drink, and an hour’s watching from the car here produced Violet-Green Swallow, Black-chinned Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, Bushtit and Canyon Towhee among plenty of commoner species.

In the late afternoon I started the long drive back east. My overnight halt was at the Fort Lancaster overlook, where I had unsuccessfully looked for Gray Vireo a few days previously. Even at first light the next day, it took more than 2 hours to finally locate a pair of Gray Vireos a short distance up the road from the parking area. However, perhaps even more satisfying than eventually seeing Gray Vireo was finding a Rock Wren, a bird that until now had mysteriously eluded me in Texas – and a fitting end to a highly successful trip.

Rock Wren
Rock Wren, Fort Lancaster overlook, May 31st 2017.

World Life List: 2,212
USA Life List: 409
2017 Texas Year List: 357

Early Migrants, March 25th-31st

Hermit Thrush2
Hermit Thrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 27th

The small-but-charming Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary on Memorial Drive is not only a very convenient birding location (being just 5 minutes from home and 2 minutes from work!), but is also starting to hint at its potential as a stellar migrant hotspot during spring migration.

The last couple of weeks at the site have produced a scattering of early migrants including Northern Waterthrush (self-found on March 26th and perhaps Harris County’s earliest spring record), Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating, Black-and-White and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Parula and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will.

Northern Waterthrush1
Northern Waterthrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 26th 2017. Told from the very similar Louisiana Waterthrush (the more regular migrant in March) by a combination of streaked throat, dense streaking below, uniform buff-white underparts, buffish supercilium of even width, short bill and dull legs. To me, Louisiana Waterthrush appears bigger, bolder, longer-billed and cleaner-cut.
Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. A real stunner, and on an early date too.
Chuck Wills-Widow
Eastern Whip-Poor-Will, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. This night bird turns up on migration in small numbers in urban Houston, but connecting with one is a matter of pure luck. This one flushed right after I took this photo, and despite relocating it 2-3 more times I couldn’t get close to it again.

Southerly winds enticing migrants to take off from the Yucatan, coupled with a belt of heavy rain forecast to hit the Gulf Coast late morning, are a potentially excellent combination for a “fallout” of migrants. Conditions looked promising on March 25th – conveniently a Saturday – so I took a trip out to Sabine Woods, on the coast near the Louisiana border. Some would say this is the Texas Gulf Coast’s most exciting migrant hotspot – it is indeed a perfect combination of a mature, isolated forest of manageable size, located within half a mile of the coast.

The forecast rain materialized late morning, bringing with it a nice range of early migrants including 10 warbler species (Black-throated Green, Hooded, Palm [both races], Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula, and both Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes) – and late in the day both Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers were found too although I didn’t see them.

Overall, though, we are still a few weeks too early for the majority of spring migrants. Had this weather combination occurred around April 20th, it could have been an epic rather than merely a good day.

Hooded Warbler2
Male Hooded Warbler, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017.
Brown Thrasher1
Brown Thrasher, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017. A really quite stunning looking bird, which is generally uncommon in Texas, although Sabine Woods has good numbers.

Anahuac NWR – an hour’s drive back towards Houston – rarely disappoints, and on the same day I was able to add both (Hudsonian) Whimbrel and Semipalmated Sandpiper to my USA list, as well as my first Eastern Kingbirds of the spring.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017.
Cinnamon Teal
Drake Cinnamon Teal, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017. Up to 6 of these birds have been present for most of the winter, but just one seemed to be still here in late March.

Meanwhile, on my “other” local patch on the outskirts of New Braunfels, Comal County, my list is steadily growing as spring birds arrive, with both Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler back on territory by late March, as well as an army of Black-chinned Hummingbirds constantly chasing each other around the hummingbird feeder.

A good passage migrant on March 31st was a Black-throated Green Warbler, which stayed in the treetops and didn’t allow a clear view, however with patience I did manage a record photo:

Black-throated Green Warbler2
Black-throated Green Warbler, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.
Northern Parula
Northern Parula, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.

Texas 2017 Year List: 251

Hutton’s Vireo, March 5th

Huttons Vireo1
Hutton’s Vireo in song, Panther Springs Park, San Antonio, March 5th 2017.

Hutton’s Vireo is a bird that flies under the radar. It is unremarkable looking – resembling a super-chunky, thick-billed Ruby-crowned Kinglet – and it attracts very little attention to itself. In central Texas its status is described as “scarce and local,  but increasing”, with a patchy distribution restricted to the Edwards Plateau. In the San Antonio area, despite numerous well-scattered records, there doesn’t seem to be any particular location where sightings can be guaranteed.

In other words, it’s not exactly the kind of bird that gets me enthusiastically leaping out of bed at 5.00am on a Sunday, hence why I haven’t gone out actively looking for one until now. But with my pipeline of potential lifers rapidly drying up, and the refreshing onslaught of spring arrivals still a few weeks away, I figured it was about time I tried to score. A quick eBird search soon revealed a few likely spots on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, including a location where my friend Sheridan Coffey had seen one just the day before.

My lack of urgency to see this bird is reflected in the fact that I didn’t even start the day at my selected Hutton’s Vireo site, instead choosing to mooch around nearby Stone Oak Park in the mist and drizzle of a mild, damp Sunday morning. I did have an ulterior motive here, with Rufous-crowned Sparrow (another unremarkable life bird) top of the agenda, plus Canyon Wren and the long-staying Say’s Phoebe, all of which made it onto my list with the minimum of fuss.

The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Panther Springs Park, allowing at least some record shots of the single Hutton’s Vireo I found there, which I first located by song. This bird allowed a close approach but was constantly backlit against the sky or obscured by twigs. The photos below show a comparison with the superficially similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet:

Huttons Vireo2
Hutton’s Vireo, Panther Springs Park, March 5th 2017. Note the chunky build, thick bill, incomplete pale eyering (strongest behind the eye) and the lower wingbar connecting to the pale primary edges.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Riverview Park, Seguin, March 4th 2017. Note the slim build, fine bill, and darker primaries with a distinct blackish bar below the second wingbar.

The day before had been a washout, with constant rain all day. I took my wife’s cousin’s kids (triplets!) on an early-morning jaunt to Riverview Park in Seguin, haunt of the long-staying White-breasted Nuthatch. It was a lot of fun but – perhaps predictably with steady rain falling and three ebullient 10-year-olds in tow – not productive for the nuthatch. The kids really enjoyed the birding, though, with the highlight for them being three woodpecker species in the same pecan tree (Ladder-backed, Downy, and Golden-fronted), and for me the Green Kingfisher that flashed past us twice when we were clowning around trying to cross a small stream.

I spent Saturday afternoon trying to take photos of the birds coming to the yard feeders in New Braunfels, and getting almost no usable shots in the very poor light conditions. My best effort was this Chipping Sparrow:

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow, New Braunfels, March 4th 2017.

Anyway, it was a satisfying weekend all told, especially considering the limitations imposed by the weather. In a few days I’ll be off on a long weekend down to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which should yield a bunch of year ticks, and hopefully the first stirrings of Texas’s all-important spring migration!

Lifers: Hutton’s Vireo, Rufous-crowned Sparrow (total 2,152).

2017 Texas year list additions: Common Grackle, Egyptian Goose, Canvasback, Canyon Wren, Say’s Phoebe (total 208).