Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Endless Fox sex delivers results

I am pleased to report that all my sleepless nights earlier in the year have been worthwhile. My experience every January and February is that Foxes enjoy seemingly endless and very satisfying sex. Right through the night. It is loud, it is prolonged, it is really quite annoying, but you cannot say that it does not work...

Earlier this week I happened to glance out of the new turret here at Chateau L and down at the end of my neighbour's garden the enhanced family was having one of its first forays above ground. There are four cubs, and the mother has a stick rather than a tail - she is clearly feeling the strain. My neighbours, luckily, are not big gardeners. The area at the bottom of their garden is distinctly wild, and the area at the top is not far off. Were they green-fingered, I expect that they might find the rotting food and assorted crap that foxes bring back rather irritating. For my part I have spent the last few evenings getting readyfor the growing season and if I don't say so myself the grounds of Chateau L are beginning to look rather nice. What I don't need is any, er, decoration, so I sincerely hope that they enjoy the wilder side of things as I have very little interest in scooping up fox poo from an entire family. I have enough wildlife issues as it is - this evening I discovered that I have contributed all of last year's crop of monkey puzzle seeds to one of the insatiable squirrels. Many of them had started to germinate and I was very much looking forward to seeing how they got on. Alas no, one massive binge from a squirrel that probably wasn't even hungry has put paid to that. Maybe the presence of a pack of growing foxes will convince my rotund grey friend that a new garden should be sought. I doubt it somehow, but I live in hope.

There is no denying that they are very cute though.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Costa Rica - Day 5

Savegre Mountain Lodge is nestled almost at the bottom of the valley, along a dead-end road that winds down from Route 2 that follows the ridge. There are several lodges here, and all exist for but one purpose. Resplendent Quetzal is an industry, this is THE place where these birds are seen, and there are something like 80 pairs in the valley. Almost everybody you see along the road or at the breakfast table will be a birder that is here to tick Quetzal.  Amazing when you think about it. In common with all the places we stayed, the accommodation was comfortable and the food good. When you are 85 years old these things matter!

Spotted Woodquail

We were up early and exploring the grounds – we had agreed with Leo that when it came to Quetzals we were happy to plan it cool. The way most people in the valley see Quetzals is to get up before dawn and go and stand near the designated fruiting trees that the birds have recently been frequenting for their morning feed. This pretty much guarantees you a sighting, but you have to endure seeing the bird with upwards of a hundred other people who have a combined age of 9,000. Not for us. Instead we had a quick check of a fruiting tree at the hotel (no Quetzal but an Emerald Toucanet and male Scintillant Hummingbird and then started birding. First up were a group of Spotted Woodquails that we managed to creep up on, and which gave the monopod another airing. Other birds encountered before breakfast were Black-faced Solitaire , Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, and Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher nesting right outside our bedroom door.

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush

Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher
Sulphur-winged Parakeet

After breakfast with a Louisiana Waterthrush we took the private track behind the hotel up the side of the valley into the oak forests, stopping for Sulphur-winged Parakeet in the orchard and Yellow-bellied Siskin slightly up the hill. In the forest itself there were a number of speciality birds we needed to see, and by sacrificing a Quetzal twitch we would have this area to ourselves. Our trusty 4x4 managed to get all the way up and at the end of the track we continued uphill on foot. Acorn Woodpeckers were abundant, but it took a very long time to connect with the targets. The first was an Ochraceous Pewee, plaintively calling from high up that we got a good look at through the scope, and then a further half mile onwards what Leo called as his bird of the trip – Silvery-throated Jay. He had apparently not seen one at all in 2017 so this was a huge result for us. The bird was brief and far away, but in the few seconds it was visible we were able to get on all the key features. Black bird, silver throat, ahem. Also along here were Lineated Foliage-gleaner and Tufted Flycatcher.

Acorn Woodpecker

Tufted Flycatcher

Collared Redstart

Black Guan

We returned to the car and on the way back down passed what were presumably the first of the Quetzal twitchers on their way up. I doubt they actually got the Jay as the distance from the end of the drivable track would have been way beyond them. We drove out of the hotel and down to the very end of the valley where we walked a trail past a trout farm and alongside the river. Being around midday this was not super-productive, but we got great views of a Yellowish Flycatcher, Philadephia and Brown-capped VireosSpot-crowned Woodcreeper, and Buffy Tuftedcheek.

Yellowish Flycatcher

During our lunch break I positioned myself at the feeders near the hotel which were far better than those at La Quinta, but struggled with the midday light. These are actually in the garden of a local guide but he has chairs set up and only asks for donations to buy fruit. It is quite a set up and if you had the time you could easily spend the start and end of the day here. As ever birding came first and so I just took a few photos when a convenient cloud passed over. Many really good birds came in during the hour or so I was here though, including Silver-throated Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Red-headed Barbet, Acorn Woodpecker, Flame-coloured Tanager, Tennessee Warblers by the dozen, and several species of Hummingbird. These will feature in another post as there are too many photos!

Red-headed Barbet

Slaty Flowerpiercer
and in action!

Tennessee Warbler

Rufous-collared Sparrow

Flame-coloured Tanager

Baltimore Oriole

Silver-throated Tanager

At around 3pm it was time for the big one. Resplendent Quetzal. We hoped! Imagine coming back from Costa Rica having not seen one! The first question birders ask is “Did you get the Quetzal?” Not being able to answer in the affirmative would have been distastrous. We drove up the valley to the stakeout to find it deserted. Awesome. We started to look into the trees, scouring every stem, and I lucked out quite quickly with a female sitting quietly on a horizontal branch. I beckoned the others over and Leo set up the scope. Bingo. What. A. Bird. At this point another car with a guide and a couple of birders turned up but this did not detract from the moment. In fact it helped as with more eyes looking we also discovered the male, sitting similarly motionless nearby. Wow! What. An. Even. Better. Bird. Initially only the top half was visible. This is very nice, but not the main attraction. Then it moved and we were able to see the tail. But not the rest of it…. Eventually it moved again and we got more or less the whole thing – spectacular, you can see why it generates a whole branch of tourism on its own.

The rest of the day was devoted Owls in the valley. We dipped a Costa Rica Pygmy Owl at a known stakeout but got a Bare-shanked Screech Owl closer to the Quetzal spot. Excellent views once again as we gradually pin-pointed the exact location before switching on any lights. Back at the hotel after dinner we did the usual tot up of species and were pleased to see that after our fourth day we were on 279.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Costa Rica - Day 4

We returned to La Selva first thing in the morning to try and clean up on a couple of things we had missed previously. It is difficult to keep track of a list during the intensity of the birding day, but every evening in the manner of most bird tours we went through the systematic day list, and it is doing this that allows the guide to formulate the plan for the following day. Leo must have realized that there had been a couple of easy misses the previous day and that we had time before we set off for the Highlands to snaffle a couple of them. Within about five minutes of pulling up at the entrance barrier that is exactly what had happened, with great views of both Cinnamon Woodpecker and Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker. These are pretty similar, especially 30m up a tree, but the views were such that it was easy. We also managed great views of a pair of highly elusive Black-throated Wrens and a much easier Fasciated Ant-Shrike.

Cinnamon Woodpecker

Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker

Black-throated Wren

With these early scores under our belts we drove the fairly short distance to Cope’s Place at Guapiles, stopping briefly at a river for some great views of Fasciated Tiger Heron and a tiny Strawberry Poison Frog. This is literally a man called Cope’s (pronounced Co-pay) house – he has turned his garden into a feeding station and also has some stake-outs nearby. Extremely enterprising, and he had a stream of visitors. Too many visitors! Soon after we arrived a minibus full of Japanese photographers turned up and started papping anything and everything that moved, and this included me! Or rather my photography gear. This is perhaps a clash of cultures but I confess to being a little surprised to find a lady buzzing round me with her phone trying to take a photo of my home made camera strap whilst I stood there wondering what on earth was happening. I am very proud of this creation as it happens, it allows me to bird with a 500mm lens in an very comfortable and trouble-free way. Not that this would have helped my newfound Japanese friends, as they were not exactly travelling light. Tripods, crazy pan heads, all manner of crap clipped to them and seemingly not the faintest clue about what makes a pleasing bird photograph. It was ridiculously comic, at one point somebody on the road spotted a Parrot in a tree, and this caused some of the group who were at the garden feeders to take the direct route and charge straight across the feeding station to the road where their compatriots were taking photographs of an empty tree which until recently had had a Parrot in it…..because they had also run directly under the tree. Their arrival caused chaos, and for a while we were all stood around wasting time whilst Cope worked out who was going to do what and when – during which a Russet-naped Wood-Rail ran across the road. Presumably they leave good tips as if I were a guide I would have driven the minibus into a lake at the earliest opportunity.

Not my idea of fun!

In the end we left and went to the Crested Owl stakeout. Whilst Cope searched for the Owl in the forest we discovered it was in a tree above our car, so that was all pretty easy. When Cope returned part two of the stakeout was to take a quick look at the Honduran White Bats that make tent shelters under large leaves of Heliconias. Very cool, but even better was that on the route in I had noticed a small corrugated-leaf Zamia. At the bats I asked Cope about this plant and he knew exactly what I was talking about, and so on the way back to the road he took me down a different path and showed me a huge adult Zamia neurophyllidia (as I discovered when I consulted the literature at home). How cool to know your land so intimately that you know where certain plants grow?

Crested Owls

We returned to Cope’s garden, passing the minibus of photographers on the way to where we had just been. To be honest I felt for the bats…. At the feeding station we passed a happy half hour watching the various comings and goings. These included many Clay-coloured Thrushes, Pale-vented Pigeon, Palm Tanager, Chestnut-headed Orependola, Great-tailed Grackles and a Wood Thrush all feasting on fruit. There were also sugar-water feeders for the hummingbirds, which included White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. I could have stayed for a long time but we had a long journey ahead of us with further stops so reluctantly left.

Pale-vented Pigeon

Wood Thrush

Passerini's Tanager (female)

Chestnut-headed Orependola

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

White-necked Jacobin

The next stop was very close by on the main road back up the Carribbean slope. This is known as the Old Butterfly Garden which had a new suite of hummers including Snowcap. The parking area borders a large planting of Porterweed and this was buzzing – literally! We saw both male and female Snowcap, the former displaying to the latter whilst she sat on a stem, as well as Black-crested Coquette, Green Thorntail and Violet-headed Hummingbird. Again somewhere I could have spent the whole day, waiting for white cloud to hide the sun and then trying for hummingbirds in flight. Of course that wasn’t possible so we went into the cool of the forest to try for new birds. Of all the areas that we visited over the course of the week this was probably the least productive, but clearly it had massive potential. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that birding this slope a few km up the road was one of a particular birder’s most memorable birding moments. The best bird here was probably an Ashy-throated Chlorospingus.

Green Thorntail

Snowcap, female

Snowcap, male

Now the real driving began – we had to go all the way back to San José on Route 36, through the city without getting stuck in any traffic, and then back up the other side of the central valley into the Highlands on the 2. The traffic was not too bad, and we got a House Crow on the way! A quick stop for a fruit juice added Cattle Egret to the day list, and a Cicada was seen well – huge insects! Mid afternoon we had ascended into the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, and took a side road towards Paradaiso Lodge.  This was a fairly rough track but very good birding, and the important bird that we needed to see we got almost immediately – Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher. We spent the rest of the afternoon birding along this track in the warm sunshine. No Quetzals, but being new habitat lots of new birds for the list. These included Yellow-winged VireoTimberline Wren, Flame-throated Warbler, Sooty Thrush, Black-cheeked Warbler and Mountain Elaenia.

Yellow-winged Vireo

Black-and-Yellow Silky Flycatcher

Flame-throated Warbler

With darkness falling we retraced our steps to the main road and took the next turning to San Gerardo de Dota. In the gathering dusk we managed excellent views of Dusky Nightjar, and heard Unspotted Saw-whet Owl calling. The road descended into the Savegre Valley, and we followed it almost to the end where our lodgings for the next two nights were – the Savegre Mountain Lodge. Although we had spent much of the day in the car, our trip list now stood at 246.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Costa Rica - Day 3, afternoon

As previously mentioned I spent the long lunch break back at La Quinta by their feeders. There were birds coming and going constantly - Tanagers, Honeycreepers, even some Collared Aracari briefly. In all honesty though this is a not a great set-up as it is in the middle of the hotel with chalets on all sides - backgrounds are hard work. And of course there are the people. A Chestnut-mandibled Toucan was on the point of coming in when it was flushed by a shuffling Octogenarian who had not the faintest clue what he had even flushed. This was feature of Costa Rica actually, van loads of ancient Tilley-hatted American birders with binoculars hanging somewhere near their knees. They were clearly enjoying themselves, but honestly, who would be a bird guide? We managed to mostly steer clear of them, for one thing we moved a lot more quickly!

Passerini's Tanager

We returned to La Selva mid afternoon and immediately crossed the suspension bridge. Leo clearly had something on his mind. He had exchanged some gen with another guide just before, and the imparted news was obviously rather good. All the guides did this frequently actually, and whilst my spanish is only so so, I usually got the gist. Generally these were more pointed versions of the classic "anything about?" lines that all birders will be familiar with. So it was the we passed the Broad-billed Motmot with barely a glance, went past the White-collared Manakin that would not stay still, ignored the roosting Crested Guan and headed into the forest on a new path we had not seen before.

Crested Guan

Broad-billed Motmot

White-collared Manakin

The call Leo had been listening out for stopped us in our tracks and using his tape he brought the bird in. At first it was invisible in the darkness, but eventually it popped out in the clear, calling away in response. A Spotted Antbird, a tiny ball of excitement. But the light, goodness me. The understorey of the rainforest is so dim it is nearly impossible to get a proper photo. The 1dX however does an admirable job. The below photo is taken at ISO 3200, and at 1/50th of a second. That shutter speed may sound like the fraction of a second that it is to non-photographers, but photographers will recognise that it is very slow indeed, especially with a long lens. My monopod that habitually hangs off my waist came good in this situation and I can scarely believe what I got - many of course are somewhat impressionistic, but a few seem just fine.

Spotted Antbird

Shortly after this a lady came jogging down the path ahead of us. She stopped, breathlessly exchanging words with Leo. She was quite excited as she passed on news of a bird a bit further up the path. We quickened our pace, and there around the corner a few minutes later I came face to face with probably my bird of the trip. In the trees ahead of us was a huge King Vulture. It was majestic, regal and prehistoric. With the stench of an ex-something invading my nostrils I raised my camera and fired off a record shot in the semi-darkness before the bird flew. It landed briefly on a better lit perch before heading further into the forest. Wow, just wow. What a bird! One of the best birds I have seen anywhere and the photos don't do it justice.

A rather full King Vulture

We returned down the path in semi-darkness, with Short-tailed Nighthawk in a clearing and a pair of Green Ibis coming to roost. Back over the bridge in darkness we tried one last time for the Vermiculated Screech Owl and remarkably we heard it. Even more remarkably we then tracked it down and got a spot-lit view - how these guides do it is anyone's guess - they are exceptionally skilled. We drove back to the hotel for dinner elated at a spectacular day in which we had seen 114 species. We could probably have seen many more but Leo was taking time to ensure that we got good views of all the near-endemics.

Common Parauque in the car headlights