Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In praise of Hummingbirds

Lesser Violetear. No, I don't know either.

Well I’ve finally just finished consolidating my Costa Rica trip report along with the monumentally huge list. I estimate that the whole thing took me about 45 hours to write. About three to four hours per blog post, depending on the length and the number of photos, three hours for the list, and then about six hours of putting it all together for the final document which I have now loaded up to Cloudbirders. That is some effort, but one I am pleased to be able to do as I rely so heavily on existing trip reports when planning my own adventures. Many of the reports on there are essentially adverts placed there by birding tour companies (and they are very useful for planning), but there are loads written by people just like me. Solo travellers or small groups going it alone. Long may that tradition continue, in my opinion writing detailed birding trip reports is one of the most community-spirited things you can do. I used to just do it in blog form (you can see the posts organised by trip here), but for some of the more exciting trips I have been on lately I’ve scraped the text from each post, subtly rewritten sections of it, added the photos again and saved it as a complete document. Costa Rica is by far and away the longest I have done, and at 69 pages is not really a “handy” size, but in my defence there are a huge number of photos – I had not realised quite how many I had taken. Many of them are absolute garbage, taken in low light through multiple twigs etc, and with dreadful backgrounds. They serve their purpose.

I am far happier with my Hummingbird photos. Largely these are as a result of dedicated sessions – albeit short sessions and generally at lunchtimes – at bird feeders. Some however were “in the field” – wherever there were stands of Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) there were Hummingbirds, and during ten minutes here and ten minutes there I was able to get a few lucky flight shots.

We saw 37 species of Hummingbirds and it could have been more. It was only when I got back and was going through the process of identifying them all over again from my photographs that I realised I’d actually photographed many of them, in some cases quite successfully. It’s worth looking at the Hummingbird section of the list.

Amazing n’est ce pas? What I find fascinating, beautiful and romantic even, are the names. So evocative. Gems and stars. Fairies and nymphs. Emeralds and goldentails. Scintillants, brilliants and magnificents. Whoever came up with these names should be applauded, they are perfect and they seem to say exactly what your brain is thinking as they dart past. They are brilliant, they are magnificent, they are like sparkling gems as the light catches them at just the right angle and their hidden iridescence beams out. My photos don't so them justice, neither do far better ones, no still image really could. They are masters in their element, controlled and precise perfection. Dare I say it, they might be better than Chats.... Blue and green explosions of life. Glittering, effervescent, shining little sprites that were just magical to watch and extremely challenging to follow. And for the most part absolutely tiny, but with immense character and attitude. The complaints, arguments and fights were prolonged and fierce. Buzzing warfare. Somehow I managed to capture 17 of them, under half, but I'm actually surprised it is that many. Trying to predict where a bird that can, at will, travel in any direction is almost impossible. Sometimes, usually just before landing at a feeder, there would be a slight pause, and this was a tactic I used to try and get them in flight. Mostly I just burned my shutter for no good reason, occasionally I got lucky. I would go back tomorrow simply to photograph Hummingbirds - I have seen what is possible on the internet and that's what I want. With time on my side, patience and several flashguns I reckon I would do better. Do I have a favourite? I don't think I do - the simple idea of a Hummingbird is enough for me. Anyway, here they are.

Coppery-headed Emerald

Green Hermit

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

White-necked Jacobin

Green Thorntail feeding on Porterweed


Snowcap - male

White-tipped Sicklebill

Lesser Violetear

Lesser Violetear

Lesser Violetear

Lesser Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird (aka Magnificent Hummingbird)

Talamanca Hummingbird

Talamanca Hummingbird

Lesser Violetear

Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

Lesser Violetear

Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

Scintillant Hummingbird

Talamanca Hummingbird

White-tailed Emerald

Volcano Hummingbird

White-tailed Emerald

Green-crowned Brilliant

Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Green-crowned Brilliant

Violet Sabrewing

Violet Sabrewing

Crowned Woodnymph

Crowned Woodnymph

Monday, 14 May 2018

Born to be Middle Aged

Ah yes, middle age. I am there, have been since my early twenties according to many people I know. Middle age is apparently defined as being after early adulthood but before old age. Makes sense. So about 45 to 65. I am nowhere near 45 of course, and view 60 as very old indeed, but nonetheless even if my friends are wrong there are signs. 

I'm not just talking about involuntary groans when you bend down to pick something up. No, this is far more serious. On Saturday morning I caught myself fretting about whether the lawn was too wet to mow. Gah! If that isn't a sign I don't know what is. I rebelled and mowed it anyway. That's another sign - thinking that breaking from established gardening norms somehow counts as gross insurrection.

Anyway, I don't mind being middle aged, I was born to it. And now that I am approaching it I can legitimately do or claim many things that when I was younger just didn't fly. Going out for instance. Sometimes I am in the mood, but very often (almost always in fact) I prefer a quiet night in to going out. I hate going out, and always have. I might have to talk to people for starters.

I can also now complain about rubbish on the TV. This has applied to me since I was about ten years old. I would go to school and the other kids would be talking enthusiastically about something or other and I would have absolutely no idea what they were talking about. I still don't, and have awkward conversations with colleagues where it slowly dawns on them that I am not normal. The last time I watched an actual broadcast of anything was probably about 2014. I've seen a few things on 'catch-up' or whatever it is called, most recently in December I think, Blue Planet 2, which was excellent. Mostly however my life, and that of our entire household, is entirely television-free. Long may that continue. Imagine if I felt compelled to watch series, or couldn't possibly miss X Y or Z? How people have time to watch TV I simply have no idea.

I can also whinge about how crap music is these days. I don't know a single tune in the Top Ten and probably never have. What I will say is that my children play a variety of rubbish such as you would not believe. Utter trash. But they are also subjected to my middle-aged music by way of education, so when I put Springsteen or Van Morrison on they might grit their teeth, but they know it as well as I do and I take some comfort from that. 

Talking of children, I find that they are quite difficult to understand sometimes. Did you know that if something is "bear sick" it means that it's really cool. I didn't and I am willing to bet that most readers of this post don't either. Come to think of it it might be 'bare' sick actually, I have no idea and I don't care. The point is it's ridiculous. When I was at school when something was really cool, it was, well, cool. Probably my parents thought I sounded ridiculous too.

What about writing a blog? I'm willing to bet that this is exceedingly middle-aged. Young people don't write, it is too much effort, too much to take in for this instant age that we live in. Soundbites and pictures are what is needed for the pathetic attention spans most people have these days. That sounds very middle-aged of me, and being perverse this post has neither. Just another little contribution to my upcoming demographic label. You know those drop-downs on websites - 25-34, 35-44, 45-65..... Yup, there is a bracket shift coming my way in a few years, just another relentless reminder, as if scrolling down for the year of my birth is not enough, that I am well and truly - nearly - middle aged.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Costa Rica - Trip List

The trip list was an impressive 412. Of these, 16 were heard only (which I don't count), leaving 396 seen - and most of the time seen well. I had 297 lifers - the other 100 or so birds I'd seen in the US or on one of my earlier Caribbean trips, and of course Waders and various other birds are sometimes pretty global. This is my list. Bob saw a couple I did not and vice versa - I think our combined total was 414.

I've spent a lot of time compiling this so hopefully it makes sense. I think the total is more akin to a two week trip, but then again there were only two of us and our guide, so birds were added to the list quickly without having to hang around until a whole minibus full of people had all got on it. This undoubtedly helped, but really the difference was Leo. He was unbelievably sharp, and this list is testament to his knowledge and skill. 

I would love to go back - we missed out different habitats up near the Nicaraguan border, and also down south nearer Panama. Remember that this trip was only 6 full days, as well as a few hours after we landed and then a morning in which we had to get back to San José by lunchtime for our return flight. Had we had even ten days we may have been able to squeeze these in - the list might have been closer to 600! 

Trip List -412

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Lazy days

Well what a weekend that was! Five Buzzards, three Peregrines, eight Sparrowhawks, a Kestrel and Hobby were the sum of my skywatching, by far the majority of which were on the Bank Holiday Monday. This also coincides with my most horizontal of the three days. I think on Saturday and Sunday I had been pretty busy and not spent much time staring upwards. Come Monday however and all the hard labour behind me, I was free to flop on the lawn and scan the sky. My hoped-for Red Kite did not materialize, but all five of the aforementioned Buzzards glided over in the space of only a few hours. Other birding interest came in the form of a Common Sandpiper on Alex found by James, the twitching of which allowed me to add on a slight detour on the way back to hear our faithfully returning Reed Warbler gurning away. And that was it, and do you know what, I am quite satisfied with that as the totality. I considered driving around to Thursely Common for a tame Cuckoo photography session, but judging from the number of photographs on the internet I expected I would not enjoy the experience and decided against it. I also thought about birding a quality bird reserve on the coast, getting my year fix of Bitterns, Nightingales and Orioles etc, but again it all came down to the number of people I would encounter.


In my garden I encounter very few people. This is how I like it, and so this weekend this is where I spent the vast majority of my time. I am not antisocial, or at least not very antisocial, but lazy days in the garden in fine weather take a lot of beating. The timing was good too – in summer there is little to do, but in late spring and especially after a lengthy period of less than ideal gardening weather after a long winter, three sun-soaked days were gratefully received. Famille L basked. The BBQ saw plenty of action, as did the wine cooler. And the sprinkler, which was called into action not to water the plants but as a diversionary tactic for bored and heat-crazed children.  I was content to sit underneath a potted palm tree and think happy thoughts with a cold drink in my hand.

One of those happy thoughts was about Swifts. On Sunday I had heard my first screaming birds of 2018, and this had prompted me to enact phase two of Chateau L: Project Swift. Phase one had been to install purpose built Swift bricks into the battlements during the installation of the new turret. Phase two involves trying to attract the birds down to use them. Many online resources, including, recommend playing Swift calls at the right time of year to encourage passing birds that may be prospecting to come down and check out the sounds. That being the case I rigged up some speakers and for most of Monday played Swift calls on repeat extremely loudly. There goes the neighbourhood. ANd for most of the day this resulted in a handful of Swifts circling around the neighbourhood, generally concentrating on Chateau L. Time will tell - unfortunately I am not around to play the tape constantly, and this being London one cannot just leave turrets open all day. But I am definitely encouraged and whenever I can over the next few weeks I will play the tape. It might happen quickly, it might take a few years, but no matter what it is very exciting.

In fact it is possibly the most excited I've been about birds for a while. Even though it is prime time, so to speak, the birding urges just are not hugely present at the moment. I don't know why, does there need to be a reason? I do miss birding, those fantastic days out where you are in the field from first light to dusk just drinking it all in. At the moment I just don’t miss it enough to do anything about it, there are other priorities – same old story, too many hobbies and too little time. Plus I read things about birding in the UK from time to time that continue to put me off. I have not phased exactly, but there needs to be a spark, some kind of trigger that sets me off, and this will rekindle the fire so to speak. Maybe a “big day” or similar? The month of May would be the time to do it.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Costa Rica - Day 8

We met Leo early for a walk up the trail that follows the river behind the hotel. Amazingly we got fabulous views of the Black-faced Antthrush here after our miss the previous day, and Dot-winged Antwren. Before we left we also managed to find Fiery-billed Aracari in the trees near our room, our final chance at these brilliant birds.

Fiery-billed Aracari. Best I got!

Our destination this morning was the dry forest along the Guacalillo Road, as well as some better mangrove habitat on the other side of the Tarcoles. Carara is in what is called the transitional zone, where Pacific slope rainforest gives way to a dryer habitat. This results in a lot of different species in a small area, and it really was not a long time before we turned off the main roads and were in a totally different kind of place. Dry and dusty, and bakingly hot.

Our Trip List started advancing almost immediately by virtue of a few opportune spots along the road. Leo seemed to be targeting open areas with larger trees. Over the course of perhaps three stops we picked up Common Ground DoveNutting's Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Tropical Pewee, and three new hummingbirds - Plain-capped Starthroat, Charming Hummingbird, and Steely-vented Hummingbird. It was a bit like a route march though, we could not linger anywhere, and I think I disappointed him by running away from the car to try and photograph the White-throated Magpie-Jays.

The road turned towards the coast and we were soon seeing the Pacific again. Our one and only Pearl Kite of the trip was on wires just adjacent to the beach here. Towards the end of the road we parked up and walked into the mangroves. Excellent views here of Mangrove Wabler again, and at the river we got Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Amazon Kingfisher, and best of all American Pygmy Kingfisher.

All too soon we were meandering back through the dry forest – a couple more stops got us Olive Sparrow, Long-tailed Manakin, and some roadside Double-striped Thick-knee.

And then it was time to hit the road unfortunately. San José is not too far away at this point, but there is only one road and if there is a problem on it then you are stuck and Leo wanted to get past that section towards the outskirts of the city where we would have options. Once there there was some last minute birding which got us American Kestrel, but another small side-excursion did not pull in anything new.

We had lunch at the Denny’s opposite the airport and then bade farewell to Leo to catch our flight back to London. The lounge made excellent gin and tonics with lashings of Tanqueray, much needed. Our final total was 412 birds, of which 396 were seen and the rest heard. I think that is an astonishing total – most of the 396 were seen very well thanks to the laser pen trick.

Next up - that astonishing list.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Costa Rica - Day 7

I popped out early to explore the hotel grounds but I did not have much time as we were headed to Carara NP and wanted to arrive before everyone else. This was only a short distance from Villa Lapas and rather than start at the main reserve we drove a little further to try a different trail. Mainly this was because Leo had gen on a Royal Flycatcher and there was also a Manakin lek here; in the event we saw neither though we did hear the clicking and whirring of the Manakins very clearly. 

Bare-throated Tiger Heron at the Villa Lapas Hotel

We returned to the main car park after about an hour and proceeded to walk the main trail that initially heads off parallel to the main road. The trail is paved and very easy going, and we were into decent birds immediately. Highlights included a Steak-chested Antpitta which we gradually tracked down thanks to its subtle whistling call. Incredibly difficult to get a decent view, even harder to get a photograph - I managed the bottom half of it.... In fact today was very hard work with the camera, having spent much of the day in the forest, and I have little to show for it.

Short-billed Pigeon

Crane Hawk

Baird's Trogon

The best area was close to a stream that was known for attracting birds in to bath during the hottest parts of the day. This proved to be exactly the case, with three species of Mannikin (Blue-crowned, Orange-collared, Red-capped) seen in quick succession, views of a very skulky Riverside Wren, and then some truly amazing views of Great Tinamou a short while later. Another treat was a Crane Hawk attacking some kind of food source in a tree trunk, oblivious to us watching it.

Blue-crowned Manakin (female)

Great Timamou

A special bird in this area is the Black-faced Antthrush but unfortunately whilst we heard several calls the bird could not be persuaded to show. White-whiskered Puffbird showed well, but Golden-crowned Spadebill was a lot harder - tiny and shy! We continued birding the forest of Carara all morning in high temperatures, finally making it back to the car early afternoon – after lunch back at Villa Lapas, and in the absence of a bird feeding station here, I lolled in the pool with a beer while Bob had a snooze.

White-whiskered Puffbird

Streak-chested Woodcreeper

Mid-afternoon we returned to the chase, birding first the mouth of the Tarcoles river where we cleaned up on waders, herons, Spoonbills and egrets – nothing new from my perspective but all vital for the trip list. We also had excellent views of a Black (Mangrove) HawkWe spent the final part of the day in the mangroves here. Panamanian Flycatcher was a good find, and after watching all of the Scarlet Macaws heading to roost we were treated to a fly-by Grey Hawk, Streak-chested Woodcreeper and Lesser Nightjars hawking over the river.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Black Hawk

Scarlet Macaw

Our trip list was now at 386 which surpassed all expectations for a 6.5 day trip. We thought that 300 would be a stretch target but we simply did not understand the biodiversity in Costa Rica/ Could we get an additional 14 before we left and therefore crack 400? We had one final morning before a mid-afternoon flight from San Jose back to London.