Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Return to Blogorado: Gunnison

Samantha found this Horned Lark. It's a good thing she did, because it was a TRIP BIRD.

Colorado is home to a few species I've still never seen, the most notable and arguably best of which is Gunnison Sage-Grouse, almost endemic to the state. Dipper Dan, Sultry Sam and myself had a wedding to attend in Denver, but after raging with many old friends, the old tribes of Sunnybrae and San Francisco disbanded and the three of us made the trip out to Gunnison, which if you are unfamiliar is actually a good area to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse. We knew we would require some luck and there was a decent chance we would dip on them...and we did! No need to build up any suspense over our fail, or go into excruciating detail about hours and hours of driving through sagebrush really slowly and constantly stopping to look at grouse-shaped rocks or grouseless patches of was shitty. Fortunately, it was a pretty sweet area to explore so it was still a good time - here's a few photos.

We did a whole lot of not seeing grouse in very scenic places. Here is Danmantha not seeing grouse near Tomichi Dome.

Brewer's Sparrow was one of the most abundant birds in the area, though that didn't prevent me from failing to crush, as you can see. This is as good a place as any to confess that we didn't even see Sagebrush Sparrow, which mystifies me considering the habitat we were birding in.

Our Airbnb on the west edge of town was Great Success, as it turned out to be a serious geri birding situation - feeders galore! Here is a Sage Thrasher on a yard bench as geri birding evidence. Other feeder birds included Vesper Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Cassin's Finch. A side benefit of staying here was finding a male Lark Bunting on the road into town one morning (a flagged rarity in eBird), while on our way to toil in the grouse fields.

One of the Airbnb Vesper Sparrows chants a dawn curse, making grouse completely invisible to us despite our efforts. By this point in the trip, Dan and Sam's marriage had come under incredible strain, partially due to some lingering angst from partner-swapping with other wedding guests back in Denver (hey, it's 2019) and partially because we hadn't seen any grouse. Luckily, they had me to help keep the ship afloat. If anyone needs a marriage counselor or some couples therapy, hit me up, I'm cheap...and a great listener.

Empidonax for the trip were represented by a modest number of Dusky Flycatchers (above) and a Willow Flycatcher at the McCabe Lane Wetlands.

We here at BB&B have a long and storied tradition of taking meh/mediocre (mehdiocre????) photos of Townsend's Solitaires. I admittedly am ready to move on to straight crushing, but the solitaires are not.

The photog opportunities were not many, but I did manage a Mountain Bluebird crush, which I had been hoping for. This crush came at the cost of some fresh facemelt, which will only add to the disfigurement I have previously endured from seeing other Mountain Bluebirds.

Another view of the big sage basin near Tomichi Dome. There must be many grouse here. So close, yet so far...

I did not expect the wildflower scene to be so good...really should have brought my macro lens, but here are a few token shots. Here is some kind of penstemony/beardtonguey thing.

This white phlox was everywhere. Mellowing.

There were some great patches of larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) around. These were a bit too stunning to be mellowing.

This part of the continent is laden with mammals. Well, almost every part is, but it seems like you see a lot more of them in places like Colorado and Wyoming. We got elked on the reg.

I guess this is a Wyoming ground squirrel? It may have been a lifer squirrel. They were very, very common. They look like several other ground squirrel species I've seen before, so I only now realized they were something else.

If I got the species right, apparently these have had quite the range expansion in recent years and pretty much no one is excited about it...not people, not golden-mantled ground squirrels.

One of the most beloved squirrels in all the land, the one and only quasi chipmunk, the golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Least (?) chipmunks were enthusiastic attendees of the geri birding scene at the Airbnb. Mammals we saw that are not pictured include coyote, pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed jackrabbit, marmots, and prairie dogs (east of the Rockies).

Needing a little break from driving around the sage in a futile grouse search, we decided to do a short hike and not see grouse while walking. This is the view looking north into the Gunnison Basin/the town of Gunnison from Hartman Rocks. Hecka scenic here...saw some more new plants and some trip birds, including Ash-throated Flycatcher, another eBird rarity.

Well, we failed, but the fail was more fun than not. Since I need to see the grouse someday, there is a good chance this wasn't my last visit to Gunnison.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Yellow-billed Magpies of Convenience

Any birder visiting California for the first time is absolutely drooling over the thought of seeing a Yellow-billed Magpie. Not only are they a stunning and fascinating bird, they are endemic to the state! With fall migration not far off (a time when many birders visit California, coinciding with pelagic season), I thought now would be a good time to give a few pointers on where to find them in my realm of our great state. Obviously you can check eBird for ideas of where to find them, but for birders who will find themselves in the greater bay area, or taking Highway 101 between the bay and southern California, let me make it easy for you.

While Yellow-billed Magpies can be locally common here along the western edge of their range, it is possible to miss them if you aren't looking in the right places. To prevent that devastating scenario, here are three of the best, most reliable and convenient spots to find them if you find yourself birding in these areas or just passing through.

Palm Avenue/Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara County. Just south of the San Jose megasprawl, this site is just a few minutes from Highway 101 and is very, very reliable for magpies, both along the southwestern part of Palm Avenue and at the parking lot for the preserve at the end of the road. You can also walk the trails in the preserve (no admission fee) and see them there if you miss them on the way in. This is a great area for raptors in season (Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous Hawks) and a tame Rock Wren can sometimes be found at the parking lot.

Alternatively, you can see magpies at the west end of nearby Laguna Avenue, though they are not as reliably available for close views. This is another great area for raptors (I found a Zone-tailed Hawk here!) and other open country birds. Any blackbird flock will typically contain Tricolored Blackbirds, particularly from early fall through winter; this is another popular target bird for birders from out of the area and they are very regular here. Bird along the road from Santa Teresa Blvd southwest to where Laguna ends; the end of the road is best for magpies.

Tricolored Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds with their bovine companion in a pasture next to Laguna Ave. This site is not as legendary for seeing Tricoloreds as Moonglow Dairy (Monterey County) or Outer Point Reyes (Marin County), but they are readily available to be picked out of any blackbird flock in this part of Coyote Valley.

If you have more time available in the area, magpies are fairly widespread in Santa Clara County (more so than any other bay area county!) and are waiting to be found in a number of other places, though mostly not as close to a major highway.

Mines Road, Livermore, Alameda County. Highway 580 is another major regional artery and you may find yourself out that way, cutting between the east bay and the Central Valley. A highly dependable magpie stronghold here is the northern part of Mines Road; you can start looking for them as soon as you turn on to Mines off of Tesla Road. There are many eBird hotspots along Mines Road, but here is the general one for your edification.

Mines Road is a well-known birding area and can provide hours of birding entertainment, depending on the season and how far you are willing to go. Other target species further down this road include Northern Pygmy-Owl, Greater Roadrunner, Bell's Sparrow, Lawrence's Goldfinch, and Lewis's Woodpecker.

A confiding bird struts through one of the Bradley rest stops, which are popular loitering and rummaging ground for area magpies.

Highway 101 Bradley rest areas, Monterey County. This is well south of the greater bay area, but so many birders come through here on their way to or from the bay, I just have to mention it. If you are using Highway 101 to cover some significant distance, you will likely find yourself passing through the Bradley area in southern Monterey County. Just south of Bradley there are two rest stops, one for southbound traffic and one for northbound traffic. Both of these rest stops are very good for very approachable magpies; often you can see them before you get a chance to park. The southbound stop is particularly reliable for them...I have missed them here, but most of the time the magpie viewing doesn't get any easier.

That's about all there is to it! Magpies are loud and extremely conspicuous, so finding them isn't very complicated if you can get yourself to the right areas. I won't jinx you and say you are guaranteed to see them at these places...but it will be hard to not see them.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Belize! Part VI: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Hopkins

Morelet's Seedeater (formerly White-collared Seedeater) is one of the most abundant and widespread birds in Belize. I was hoping for a Morelet's Seedeater-Morelet's Crocodile combo but it never happened. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

After Black Rock Lodge, it was time to head over to the coast for the last part of our trip. We made the semi-long drive (by Belize and/or driving with toddler standards) over the Hummingbird Highway without any birding stops, as it rained most of the time...which the Black Rock army ant swarm had correctly predicted, for the second time. We made it to Hopkins in the afternoon, where we checked in to the Hopkins Bay Resort at the very north end of town...this was the first time I've ever stayed at a typical beach resort, and while it worked for our family purposes I wouldn't recommend it to birders visiting here. It's expensive, the birding on the grounds is mostly poor, they spray the beach sand with pesticide every morning (!) and rake up any sargassum on the beach, and they try to claim to be all sustainable despite clearing out large swaths of mangrove forest...not going to be staying there again. On the flip side, I will say I did have a couple great cocktails there, and the resort is right across the street from the old cemetery in town...this is where I lifered Yucatan Vireo, which I was super stoked on, and I also had my first really good looks at Mangrove Vireos a little further north.

Tropical Kingbird are, as one might expect, dirt common in Belize. It's still a nice looking bird though. There were Couch's Kingbirds at several sites but Tropical was generally much more abundant. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

Hopkins has a lot of visiting foreigners but is also pretty's certainly not overrun by tourists and not dominated by sky-scraping mega resorts or anything. There is a great deal of good birding within 45 minutes of town, and with many lodging options it is a sensible place to be based out of for birding in the area if you don't opt for staying at the lodge in Mayflower Bocawina National Park or the rustic Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary cabins. Bordering the west side of town is a huge marsh, which provided some trip birds but more importantly got me my first Ruddy was a heard only, but I'll take it!

No matter how many of them you have seen, if Brown Pelicans are plunge-diving next to you, you must stop what you are doing and watch. Or crush. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

While our lodging sitch in Hopkins wasn't super productive for birdlife, I was able to get out for multiple ace mornings of birding while staying there. One morning I went out to Mayflower Bocawina National Park, just 20 minutes or so up the road. Of course the camera was out of comission at the the time so I've got nothing to illustrate my time there, but the birding was very entertaining and I would definitely recommend a day or two here. Within the boundaries of the park is the Bocawina Rainforest Resort, which gives you excellent access to the area and no doubt has good birding right there on the grounds...I would definitely consider staying there if I return to the area. As for birding the park itself, I was impressed. Highlights included looks at Gray-headed Dove, Blue Ground-Doves, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and Stub-tailed Spadebills. Here is my eBird list from my visit, if you're interested.

The last birding spot of the trip turned out to be the very best - Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where I was lucky enough to spend two mornings. Billy had been here before and recommended it highly, and she was right to do so. In doing my research before this trip, I found Cockscomb listed in surprisingly few trip reports despite the blood red pin it sported in eBird's hotspot map...why birders overlook this gem while birding in Belize is a mystery to me. This place is fully legit. Visitors have the option of staying the night here at some rudimentary cabins, but I suspect you have to bring all your food/water/supplies in with you. This was the one place we visited where both diversity seemed very high and bird abundance was staggering at times, and I was super impressed with the quality of birding both days I was there. The place is huge and there are lots of trails to choose from...I totally could have birded there a third day and probably seen a grip of birds I missed the previous days. The entrance road alone is probably worth a whole morning, and the one place I pulled over yielded the only Green Honeycreeper of the trip.

Shockingly, my camera worked one of the days I was at Cockscomb, so here are some more pics!

Northern Waterthrushes are one of the commonest neotropical migrants that winter in Belize. This one would not get out of the path I was walking down so I took its picture.

White Hawks were easy to find on the trip...huzzah! Back before I saw my first White Hawks in Costa Rica some years bak, this was a neotropical bird that really stood out in my imagination...difficult to fathom a bird like this without seeing it with one's own eyes. Like a handful of other prominent birds, I literally dreamed about seeing these (as opposed to just fantasizing about it, like usual) before I actually did. Easily one of the coolest raptors I have ever seen.

While not abundant, Pale-billed Woodpecker is another widespread, fairly common woodpecker...but they are huge, exotic, and are in the same genus as the iconic Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers. The day after I took this photo, I came back and got a glimpse of it (or its mate) almost get taken out by some kind of large, black raptor that went plunging through the trees after was livid.

One of the many idyllic creeks that run through the preserve. I was unsuccessful, but Agami Herons are regularly found in Cockscomb in places like this.

Ruddy Woodcreeper was a lifer back at Black Rock, but I was able to get a few identifiable photos of this bird here in a nice mixed flock.

While not exceptionally scarce, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher are notoriously difficult to actually they say. I had no such misfortune with this tiny todyish tyrant of the tangles, a true trip target. Luckily I had the prescience to memorize their song and found this shrub friend (shrub-friend) relatively easily instead of walking by it obliviously as it sang away, which I've probably done with dozens of other neotropical would-be lifers in the past. How embarrassing. 

One of the wildlife highlights of the trip was seeing this tayra! I only knew what it was because we had seen them close up at the Belize Zoo the week before...way to go Belize Zoo for successfully educating a dumb tourist. A tayra is like a giant mega weasel, a wolverine-otter looking thing. Megawolverotter. It paced back and forth across the trail in front of us a few times for good looks before trotting away.

From this angle it looks more like a bear-weasel combo. This was a very high quality lifer mammal - we also saw brocket deer, which the zoo had prepped me for as well. No jaguar sign (Cockscomb is famous for jaguars) but those were two sweet lifer mammals.

Pretty sure this was a lifer creature as well, white-lipped mud turtle (right?). It was crossing the entrance road during a rain storm. I know I am GBRS #7 in the U.S. and all that, but did you know my first real love of wildlife was herps? 

Billy and Annie in action. Billy's action was probably scanning for a Gray-headed Tanager I failed to get her on before it flew away (sorry Billy). Annie's action was sleeping.

Some unphotographed highlights from Cockscomb: absolutely stunning views of a confiding Black-faced Antthrush (the first I've seen, rather than just heard), lifer Yellow-tailed Orioles and Royal Flycatcher, getting the Leptotila hat trick (seeing White-tipped, Gray-headed and Gray-chested Doves in the same morning), and mixed flocks and concentrations of birds of such quality that I was beside myself.

I'll do one more post to kind of summarize the Belize trip for anyone who is thinking about going, but this will about wrap it up! You can thank Nikon for making a shitty product - the lack of photos to sort really enabled me to actually blog the whole trip in an almost respectable amount of time.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The 5MR (Bourbon) Challenge and The Quicksilver Cat

Acorn Woodpecker is one of the signature species in my 5MR - most of what hasn't been paved over is oak woodland. This one was at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, which is brimming with confiding ACWOs.

The 5MR reigns supreme. So much of my birding this year is done within my 5MR...who could have seen this coming? Not I.

I have embraced it.

Have you?

Many birders enjoy the competitive aspect of birding...while I can understand that, I don't watch birds as a result of some misplaced sense of competitiveness, or need to measure the length of my list against that of others in order to wrench pleasure out of embarrassing is that? Most of the birding competition I engage in these days is with myself...I'm not going to go chase a freaking Mandarin Duck or a European Goldfinch just to pad my eBird top 100 numbers. Don't people have better things to do? 5MR birding is pretty much the antithesis of rabid competitive county birding or large-scale big year horseshit, and I think that is one of the many reasons a lot of people have gotten on board with 5MR in the past few months.

That said, the real question for 2019 many species can I see in my 5MR this year? Much of my birding has turned into a sustained campaign of seeing how much avian goodness I can wring out of my radius before December 31, though what I'm really looking for is new 5MR birds more than just year birds. I've missed some uncommon/rare stuff that will definitely be challenging to find later in the year (Solitary Sandpiper, Cassin's Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Swamp Sparrow, etc.) and some stuff I will absolutely have another shot at later (any non-Canadian goose, any teal, American Wigeon). The most gut-wrenching miss involved a bird I actually saw...Officer Stahl aided me in some intense 5MR birding back in March, and he found a Varied Thrush while standing next to me...but I only caught a glimpse of an orange flash as the bird flew away, never to be seen again.

Life is pain.

Right. I've described my radius here before, so am going to give that a break...I'll just say I'm not going to get 200 species here in a year, I don't think it is feasible without being unemployed/retired/completely socially isolated/obsessive-compulsive to a degree that even most birders would consider alarming. I can live with that...not everyone can live next to a major birding destination or momentous migrant fact, most of us don't. Heck, I still haven't seen 200 in my radius, period, and it is still very rewarding to bird.

That said, I'm checking in at 161 for 2019. On this date last year, I was at 143. Seventeen species were completely new for the 5MR.

While Horned Grebe are not rare in my county, they definitely are for my 5MR. I successfully chased this bird at Los Gatos Creek County Park, and went on to find Eared Grebe (new), Long-billed Dowitcher (new) and Greater Yellowlegs (new for the year) at the same site. It was a glorious time in 5MR birding...never have I been so chuffed to see a drab Long-billed Dowitcher.

One morning I went out to my Grasshopper Sparrow spot on the outer rim of my 5MR and was amazed to see a Swainson's Hawk fly by. This is a rarity in the county away from their one known nest site, which is not in my 5MR. For some reason this immature had been in the general area for a couple weeks, but I was still shocked to see it. Definitely one of the best birds this spring. Photographed at Santa Teresa County Park.

Not that it's news to any of you, but winter is long gone and spring, at least here, isn't long for this world either. There are still one or two lingering Buffleheads in the ponds behind my house (where this photo was taken) but I expect them to be outta here any day now. 

So, in other words, I'm kicking ass. It's encouraging, and it only makes me want more.

So why not give myself some extra motivation? A little reward if I continue to flog the shrubbery with such success?

What about...heroin?

Ahhhh, heroin. That's the stuff. Talk about giving yourself a well deserved prize, know what I'm saying?

A couple of you probably do, but most of you probably don't...and I don't either. Never tried it, don't know where to get it. Well, I have some street corners in mind (the Tenderloin hasn't changed that much recently, has it?), but it's not something that runs in my friend circles these days. Like, say if I did have to go out and try to "score" (do users really say that? or just on tv?), what the hell would I call it? I don't know the street slang. Would someone who sells heroin actually sell heroin to some random who says they are looking for "heroin"? I doubt it.

But I digress. I am not only a pillar of the birding community (pillar #7), I am a parent, after all. I have to set an example, and this isn't the way to do it. I will promote something that surely has never killed anybody or ruined anyone's lives...alcohol.

What did you expect? Have you seen the title of this blog? It's time to put my liver where my mouth is.

I have breeding Lark Sparrows in my radius, how sick is that? I don't know about you but most birders I meet love these things, and I am no different. Is this one of the best sparrows? Top 3? Seems like it would be a Top 5 for almost everyone. Photographed at the secret-not-secret spot in my radius.

This bobcat was also at the secret-not-secret spot. Bobcats are one of my fav mammals and it's great to have them so close by. I also added another kind of cat to my radius list the other night...and it was not Felis catus.

I went out after sunset to get my 5MR Common Poorwill for the year (great success), on a trail I had never been on before. Walking in, I passed signs about mountain lions being present, which wasn't a surprise considering the good habitat for them and the amount of use this trail gets; I had also previously found a lion-killed deer just a couple miles away, next to a different trail. While waiting for the poorwills to start calling, I was surrounded by three different groups of deer, which made me think about lions again a few more times. After listening to the poorwills for a while I headed back to the car, using my awesome mega-torch to check for any interesting wildlife on the trail...I had strongly considered not bringing it and just using my shitty headlamp instead, but opted to take it at the last minute. 

I passed some more deer close to the trail and was cruising along when I suddenly came up on some big, bright eyeshine about 50 feet away...quite possibly less. It was definitely not another deer, but it was so close and the "eyes" were so large that my first thought was that it cannot possibly be a large animal, because it was certainly not a deer and nothing else could possibly just be sitting there, a few feet off the trail...maybe it was just a couple pieces of reflector tape? But then then it blinked, and then it moved. It was a fucking adult mountain lion! The lion unhurriedly turned around and slinked up the little streambed it had been sitting in, then stopped at a comfortable distance away (for me, anyways) while I passed it.

I have no doubt it was waiting to ambush a deer on the trail I was on. It didn't do anything I considered threatening (I considered yelling at it to encourage it to back the fuck off, which is what you are supposed to do, but it didn't seem necessary), but it was extremely close. Pretty sure it is accustomed to seeing people and I doubt it would have moved if I had not lit it up with my certainly knew I was there before I was aware of it, and it was definitely not in the process of moving away when I spotted it. Some guy was 4 or 5 minutes ahead of me on the trail, and I suspect he may have walked right past the waiting lion...within 10 feet of him...without knowing it. I think I would have done the same if I had been pointing my flashlight in a different direction at that moment.

I'm 99% sure nothing would have happened had I walked right up to the lion, but in theory I could have been killed by a mountain lion solely because of 5MR birding (how embarrassing!) and Flycatcher Jen would have to live with that.

Chaetura does not exactly trigger the same blast of adrenaline as Puma, but that's ok. Vaux's Swift is another signature 5MR species here. We have swifts galore, which is pretty unique for the region. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

In 2018 I recorded 163 species in my 5MR...not a remarkable total by any account, but solid. With 161 species so far in 2019, I am guaranteed to surpass 2018's total by a comfortable margin....but by how much?

I'm no longer so poor that I have to buy Beam all the time, but I don't have a trust fund lying around to take my love of whiskey to the top's not common that I get a rye or bourbon over $40. That said, what I am shooting for here calls for a nicer bottle than usual. So if I reach 185 species for the year, or manage to reach 200 for my radius (lifetime) by December 31, I will buy a celebratory bottle of Black Skimmer Bourbon, the perfect marriage of a good bird and a good liquor. I have been eyeing Cutwater's Black Skimmer Bourbon for some time now, and I thought their Black Skimmer Rye was great! If I can achieve both milestones before the end of the year, well then I will have to buy another celebratory bottle....but of what? Any suggestions? That would level my radius to a new caliber, so I'd like to try something else new.

So there you have 5MR birding this year will have additional fuel behind it, in the form of some #treatyoself whiskey. Happy to hear what your favorite not-super-popular ryes or bourbons are in case I have to go for a new bottle!

Anyways, as I sit here polishing off a bottle of Black Feather bourbon (recommended!), here are some more radius birds til next time...

Black-throated Gray Warbler is an underrated bird and one that I'm happy is an expected migrant in my 5MR. Yes their attire was put together in the spirit of the Economy of Style, but they are sharper and more distinct looking than many other warblers, and there is practically nothing you can confuse one with if you see it well. And the yellow supraloral spot...what a great touch. Just think, in a parallel universe somewhere the only difference in all of existence is that spot is white instead of yellow....what a trip. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

A species I didn't realize I needed for 5MR until after I saw them here was Wild Turkey. They were purposefully introduced to California as game birds and have become fairly common around the bay area, but I didn't see them in 5MR (or at least, never eBirded them) until this year. I'm not that into introduced birds (obvi) but turkeys are much more bizarre and fascinating than most. What their impacts are on the grasslands and woodlands where they are found are relatively unknown...not all introduced species have the same impacts (I don't think the Spotted Doves introduced to California caused any ecosystems to collapse), but turkeys are big, eat many different things, and there are a lot of them. Photographed on the Calero Creek Trail.

I think most birders have a few species that make them really appreciate the area where they live...for me, Golden Eagle is one of these. Golden Eagles are common enough in the greater bay area that seeing one in the right habitat is more of an expectation than a surprise, which is a luxury most birders do not have. I have seen them at a number of places in my 5MR this year. Photographed on Hicks Road.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Belize! Part V: Black Rock Lodge

Belize! It wasn't that long ago, but it kinda seems like it? So much good 5MR birding since then! Anyways, to continue with the Belize trip...after leaving the Tropical Education Center/Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge and the pine savanna behind, it began to get serious. As we headed west, actual hills and topography began to appear, which we had seen no sign of until then. The flat, lightly-treed savanna gave way to forests...we were now in a very different part of the country. I was amazed to see a Black Hawk-Eagle cruising low over the road while passing through San Ysidro, as I had only seen one before and that one was something like a thousand feet higher in the sky. We were on our way to Black Rock Lodge, one of the most heavily birded sites in the country, where we would spend five luxurious (by my scumbag standards) nights. Black Rock offers great birding on their property along the Macal River (and along their entrance road), and is situated within an hour of a number of other birding hotspots - I would highly recommend it to anyone who plans to bird in the greater San Isidro area or western part of the country.

We arrived in the area pretty early so decided to detour to DuPlooy's Jungle Lodge for lunch. DuPlooy's, which has been recently bought out and renamed Sweetwater or something like that, is another well known birding site and is also adjacent to the Belize Botanic Gardens. I had looked into staying there, but the price was considerably higher than what Black Rock offered, and Black Rock seemed to have comparable if not better birding on site. Lunch was mellow - outside and way up in the forest canopy. I was amazed to see that there was a group of tame Red-throated Ant-Tanagers coming in to check out the trash and lunch plates left behind by guests. This would be the first of 25,000 occasions I wished my camera had not stopped working...we also had good looks at Golden-crowned Warblers from the dining deck, which we would not end up seeing anywhere else.

It was hot and we were too busy with Annie to attempt any actual birding except to and from the car, so it was straight to Black Rock after that. The drive in is a mix of pastures and young forest until the road comes close to the Macal River, and after that the forest closes in for the rest of the very scenic drive (see above photo).

So, as you know I don't have dozens of crushes to share or anything like that, so will abandon any linear narrative here and just mention some of the birds and experiences from the Black Rock area.

I got 10 life birds at Black Rock, which I will list in increasing order of stoke: White-bellied Emerald (common), Ornate Hawk Eagle (poor looks at an immature), Sepia-capped Flycatcher (one and only of the trip), Ruddy Woodcreeper (much more interesting than the average woodcreeper), Northern Schiffornis (heard a great many, got really good looks at one), Dusky Antbird (two or three), Black-crowned Tityra (one on the entrance road), Ocellated Turkey (saw one individual on two occasions on the entrance road), Black-and-white Hawk Eagle (one seen from the farm area by the river), Red-capped Manakin (several, all males).

The manakins were just absolutely crippling and one in particular was absurdly tame. I was floored. Full on birdgasm...that one left a mark. I had kind of forgotten how fantastic manakins are, but the Red-cappeds here (and some confiding White-collared Manakins) rekindled my love. Black-and-white Hawk Eagles are very uncommon and could have easily been missed even if I had specifically been looking for them, and I fully expected to miss them entirely...but amazingly I had high quality looks at one soaring above the Makal River one afternoon. Looking at eBird data, this was the rarest lifer I got on the trip. The turkey was a big bonus, one of the most charismatic birds on the continent.  While they are common and easy to see in a number of places in Belize, none of those places were actually on the itinerary, so this was a significant bonus lifer.

My incapacitated camera briefly came back to life for a few minutes one afternoon. A flock of Olive-backed Euphonias obliged for the occasion.

This is one of a number of species I saw in Belize that I had only seen previously in Costa Rica back in 2012-2013. Many euphonias can be challenging to ID, but male Olive-backeds are really distinctive.

And with this Yellow-bellied Flycatcher photo, the camera fell back into a coma and I was once again free to bird unencumbered. Both Yellow-bellied and Least Flycatchers were fairly common and widespread; I did not see any other Empidonax.

Now back to your regularly scheduled digiscoping...geri birding anyone? The big fruit feeder at Black Rock's veranda brings in quite a bit of goodness, like this Yellow-winged Tanager. Oddly, I didn't see anything at the couple of hummingbird feeders they have up, I feel like there is some (substantial?) untapped geri birding potential there. Other stuff that came to the feeding platform included Collared Aracaris, Brown Jays, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Variable Seedeaters and Olive-backed and Yellow-throated Euphonias.

This Tropical Pewee was remarkably faithful to using this stick as a launchpad for sallies...forest flycatchers aren't exactly the easiest digiscoping targets so I was surprised to get a few hey-this-isn't-total-rubbish photos through the scope.

Other non-lifer highlights of Black Rock:

White-whiskered Puffbirds. There are so many White-whiskered Puffbirds here. Many of them are ridiculously approachable. They are just begging to be crushed, imploring anyone who passes by to photograph them to their heart's content. I did not know such a bird could be so common and confiding.

Raptors. The raptor scene here is something else. Aside from the lifers mentioned above, we also had Black Hawk Eagle (yes, got the Hawk Eagle Hat Trick here), Great Black Hawks, White Hawks, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawks (entrance road), White-tailed Kites (entrance road), Bat Falcons (hunting dragonflies over the canyon every day - one of the guides said they were Orange-breasted, how embarrassing), King Vulture (regular) and of course the common vultures. Bring your scope to lunch! I somehow managed to not go up the canopy tower, though I fully intended to, and that is probably a fantastic place to scan for raptors from late morning through the afternoon.

The Vaca Falls Trail. This is a very easy, fairly long trail that I spent a lot of time on. I never got bored with it - very, very good birding, and not just in the morning. There is also a great side trail just past the single unlocked gate that you have to open and close to get through, which cuts southwest (to your right) through the forest and rejoins the main trail again further upstream. Be warned that the trail map of the property they provide you with is awful.

Guides. Other than the falcon miscue (and there really is a pair of Orange-breasted in the area, though I did not see them) all my interactions with the guides were very good, even though I never ended up going birding with retrospect, I would have in order to access Elijio Panti NP and see Tody Motmot and maybe Nightengale Wren. Freddie gave me the lowdown on how to see Ocellated Turkey and I pretty much owe him for that bird.

Food. The food was very good, generally increasing in quality as it got later in the day...the dinners were great. I wasn't so in to the communal eating thing (I hate people) but they are all about accommodating the shit out of their guests there, so if you want your group to have your own table I'm sure that can be arranged most nights. Since we had a toddler that's all we did after the first awkward/disastrous dinner there.

One day we headed out to Thousand Foot Falls on Mountain Pine Ridge to check out that area, which is a very unique habitat. I had read a lot of trip reports that mentioned how gnarly the roads there can get after a lot of rain, but we had no problem with the Isuzu and only engaged the 4-wheel drive for a particularly large puddle right before the waterfall. We ended up not birding much on Mountain Pine Ridge but, most importantly, saw one of the resident Orange-breasted Falcons, which the resident caretaker correctly predicted would be visible perched on a far ridgeline after the clouds coming up out of the valley cleared. I was very grateful to have the scope with me here, as otherwise it would have just been a raptor-shaped speck. And yes, it was a high quality waterfall.

Gratuitous family photo with cloud-cloaked waterfall.

Eventually the view changed from a dense cloud bank to a faraway falcon - this is the view from the Thousand Foot Falls overlook.

On the way back from Mountain Pine Ridge we stopped at Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, which we wanted to check out because Annie could see a bazillion butterflies close up and because it is considered the best place to see hummingbirds in the entire country. It was pretty expensive (I think $20 U.S. per adult) but the butterfly propagation operation they have going on is pretty interesting and the hummingbird situation was as advertised.

With my crusher dead, I had to digiscope for photos, which was ridiculous since many of the birds were comfortable with people standing 10 or 15 feet away. Crushing FOMO was raging but there was nothing to be done except for wallow in the midst of exotic hummingbirds. White-necked Jacobins (left and center) were by far the most abundant species, which I had no problems with because they are facemelting and I have only seen a few before. A hulking Long-billed Hermit (right) or two frequently visited also.

Here is a White-bellied Emerald, of which there were several. The other hummingbirds here were Rufous-tailed (obvi), Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, several Violet Sabrewings (great to see those again) and a couple Green-breasted Mangos. Birders who come visit in spring and summer will probably see the pair of Plumbeous Kites that nest there annually, though we were too early for them. There is good forest birding on the property in general, though we did not check out the trails.

White-necked Jacobins are widely distributed and aren't particularly rare in many parts of their range...but they are absolute cripplers! I had to get a facelift after having so many buzz around my head, as my skin partially melted off from their sheer brilliance.

Army ants! I love army ants. They are the faunal spice of the Neotropics. This swarm was on the march a couple different days near the parking area while we were at Black fact, while we were leaving, the managers were getting to ready to abandon their office because it was getting overrun by the swarm! If you think honey badger don't give a fuck (remember that?), wait until you meet an army ant column. The attendant bird flock didn't hold anything crazy but it was pretty sweet nonetheless. A couple of guides commented when the swarm first appeared that it was probably going to rain the next day...which sounded bizarre...but they turned out to be right. I am a believer ants predict the weather. You show me ants, and I will show you rain.