Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Winter Mexican Tour Y2K16, Day 6: Chacalilla and Chenchoing Part I

On the morning of Day 6, we returned to Chacalilla, parking at a random spot near the north end of town and birding our way out along the main road that leads directly north (out of town) until we ran out of decent habitat. We did pretty well, and I got a life bird (Elegant Quail), though that is definitely going on the "better views desired" list. We had also seen them them on the east side of town a couple days earlier, but I got shit looks. I suspect there might be better roads to bird in the area than the northern one but we did end up with a pretty impressive species list that morning. Along with some big mixed flocks in town, there were also a number of grackle-esque Sinaloa Crows, which never failed to hold my interest despite being crows.

Great-tailed Grackle on the left, grackleesque Sinaloa Crow on the right.

Along with Sinaloa Crows, one of the most abundant local specialties in the area is Golden-cheeked Woodpecker. They are loud, conspicuous, and seemingly everywhere.

Our first Bare-throated Tiger-Heron of the trip was perched on a snag in a dry field, scanning/lording over its domain.

Weird birds. Such thick necks. We got to hear them doing their low grunting sounds at Lower Singayta, which was a nice lifer vocalization.

Cinnamon Hummingbirds are very common in the lowlands of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. Go there and you will see many, and inevitably begin cursing their abundance when you begin struggling with finding other hummingbird species.

Cursed abundance aside, it is a very attractive bird with an attractive tongue.

I find Groove-billed Anis to be fascinating. Anyone else feel this way? I can always stop and look at anis, even when there is more facemelting stuff available.

There were a good number of raptors in the is an immature Zone-tailed Hawk, which were a fairly common bird to find during the trip. You can view our heavy eBird checklist from the morning here. Definitely consider birding around Chacalilla if you ever bird San Blas, it has hella species and is a quick drive from San Blas.

Here is Flycatcher Jen, gently caressing the love of her life, Campana. Campana lives, more or less, at the Bucanero (our motel in San Blas). Campana is one of the perks.

As we finished up our morning of birding at Chacalilla, we weren't sure how the rest of the day would play out. What we wanted to do was go on a boat trip with Chencho, the now world-famous guide who is notoriously good at showing birders waterbirds, which he knows the names of in English. Chencho could get us Northern Potoo. Chencho could get us Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Chencho was a birding god as far as we were concerned. We did not want to go with anyone but Chencho...however, we made no prior arrangements with him. I was told he could be reached through Hotel Canela Garza, so we went there, but the lady working the desk did not acknowledge knowing of his existence. Then we went to the spot next to the bridge where a lot of tours leave from...but we were told that Chencho launches from the other side of the bridge. So we went over there, and of course Chencho wasn't there. Then we got Chencho's cell number from Mark Stackhouse, but our motel didn't have a phone we could use. This all happened over several days. Chencho was becoming a mythical figure. Finally, on the way back to town from Chacalilla, we went back to Chencho's launch. Dipper Dan talked to a guide there who knew Chencho, who then drove away on a bike to get Chencho, who then returned with Chencho's son (also named Chencho, I believe), who then told us that Chencho Sr. would meet us later in the afternoon for a bird trip. It was a Mexican Miracle.

If any of you want to try a similarly unplanned, haphazard way of finding Chencho, he launches from a spot on the west side of the river next to San Blas, just south of the bridge into town, at the end of the only paved street that gets anywhere near the base of the bridge. Its easy to find. Chencho said he works in a cooperativo, and that there are only two other bird guides who do river trips, I think they were Oscar and "Huevos"? Why "Huevos", I don't know. Anyways, if Chencho can't take you I guess look for them.

Chencho did show up that afternoon, giant spotlight in hand, and it was all smooth sailing from there.

Great Blue Herons hunted in the shadows of the mangroves.

Ospreys soared with the frigatebirds above the river.

Anhingas offered some more exotic flavor.

Anhinga feet. I don't think I've really looked closely at Anhinga feet before...they're yellow, weird and muscular. What cankles.

Very early on in the boat tour, we were dealt one of the highlights of the trip, in the form of Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Astonishingly, we saw two different Rufous-necked Wood-Rails on opposite sides of the river. It was astounding. I couldn't fucking believe we got to see two of these things, let alone one, and no playback was required. I really didn't think we would see one, and this was one of the top target birds of the entire trip. Dipper Dan spotted both of them, and he all got extra sloppy HJs from us that night. I'm no wood-rail expert, but I'm pretty sure the only reason we saw them is because we were looking for them at a lowish tide; if the tide was too high the birds would be back in the dense mangroves and thus not visible.

Although this photo is absolutely not worth bragging about (though seeing this species is), I'm amazed I even have an image that is recognizable; I managed one frame, focused on nothing but pitch black shadows, and somehow got something. They look much, much better than this in real life, I assure you.

More birds provided by Chencho coming soon.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Plotting a Chase

Hello, mouthbreathing nerds. What is the good word? I thought I would take a respite from Mexico posts for some much needed bullshitting...time to dust off The Human Birdwatcher Project, where birders are people too!  Allegedly. There is a cornucopia of topics to touch on today...we could talk about the new round of AOU proposals, the Malheur Incident, El Nino...nah, lets just stick to rare birds.

I've just returned from a very weak morning of birding some of my favored local spots...and once again, I am left wondering why I favor them at all. Bird of the day, in terms of rarity, was a Eurasian X American Wigeon hybrid....a truly underwhelming bird. The actual bird of the day was a Turkey Vulture flying around with an enormous dead rat, which really sums up the quality of birding I experienced this morning. Some birders say that any day of birding is a good day...but they are wrong. They are lying to you. There is such a thing as poor birding, and I've experienced it hundreds of times. This is to be expected. Unless you are out chasing rarities every single time you go birding (gross), you are not going to see rare/interesting/satisfying birds all the time.  So, about those rarities...

For California birders, the big question this winter seems to be "where are the megas?". Where are the rarities that make your heart skip a beat when you hear about them?  There just hasn't been a lot to write home about for the California bird junkie...nothing newish anyways.  A Yellow-billed Loon was a one-day-wonder in San Francisco, a handful of Slaty-backed Gulls are in bay area counties (this is normal), the LeConte's Sparrow at Abbotts Lagoon is wintering again, the Field Sparrow is still taunting me from Ojai, and let us not forget that the fucking gannet is still lurking around...which probably excites no one but me.  The one glaring exception to all these great-but-not-groundbreaking birds is the Great Gray Owl in Humboldt County. Humboldt County! Hey, I really like birding there! I used to live there! That would be a county bird...oh wait, that is one of the most sought-after species on the fucking continent, and I've never seen one!

For those of you out of state, you might be surprised to learn that California actually has a not insignificant population of Great Gray Owls that occupy the Sierras and points while this individual is a vagrant of sorts, it's not exactly on par with one showing up in someplace like Texas. However, those Sierra birds are extremely hit or miss. Some people are lucky enough to blunder into them, other folks just dip on them for years and years. Most birders have to log a lot of time in Yosemite to get Great Gray in California, especially now that the famed Wawona birds aren't a good shot anymore (I believe one of them was hit by a car), although they are still in the area. So I have no doubt that there are a number of Great Gray Owls that are actually closer to me than the Humboldt bird. What is so intriguing about the Humboldt bird (aside from that Great Grays do not show up as vagrants anywhere in the state, except for when one showed up at exactly this spot over 30 years ago!) is that NO ONE DIPS ON IT. If there was ever a particular Great Gray to look for in the state, it is this very reliable bird.

And so here I am, for approximately the 16,000th time, trying to time when I should attempt to see this bird. I will chase the shit out of a rare bird, as you know, but goddamn...I am not a big fan of driving hours and hours, just to turn around and waste my time driving more and more hours. That said, I don't want to be stupid about this...a few years ago I decided not to look for a relatively reliable Gyrfalcon (life bird) and King Eider (state bird) that were wintering in Humboldt, because I didn't have much money at the time (a poor reason) and because...because I was stupid (the main reason). I do not want to be stupid again. Going up for the Little Bunting was very intelligent, and seeing the Common Scoter was an even better decision. There are several factors working against me though when it comes to this bird:

1. I have a job. This seriously gets in the way of birding. If you want to become a better birder, quit working. I'm not joking.

2. I have friends. Unlike many birders, I have friends that I want to see when I go up Arcata way, so just blitzing up the coast for a two day chase (with 11-12 hours spent driving) is not my idea of a good time. Ideally, I have time to bird and rage. That requires more than a two day weekend, which needs to be planned out with some advance notice (see #1).

3. It could leave. Birds disappear all the time, for all manner of reasons. Why do you think I've never seen an Ivory Gull? If birds did not leave, birding would be really easy...alas, birding is hard.

4. Great Gray Owls breed. Great Gray Owls, like most life forms, want to breed. In Oregon and California, where this bird presumably was born, Great Grays lay eggs in March. That means this bird may soon want to wander to a place that has a member of the opposite sex around.

5. It could fucking die. It spends a good chunk of time next to Highway 101 and another paved road. Great Gray Owls love to get hit by cars. The last one in Humboldt County, at the same place, met its fate in the form of a hurtling logging truck. The irony of this has not been lost on anyone...anyways, it could die before I get there.

6. A photographer could kill it. Aside from this species' proclivity for getting bashed by vehicles, this bird also is getting a lot of attention from birders and photographers. It does not require a stretch of the imagination to envision someone with a camera (monstrous lens or smartphone) getting too close and flushing the bird into the grill of a speeding truck. Luckily, the bird has been seen by so many people now that the crazed crowds are diminishing.

7. Brambring. Brambring happened just about a year ago, which is a bad omen. I do not want to repeat that again. Attempting a chase on the anniversary of Brambring, to the same county as Brambring, has ominous overtones at best.

Who knows how things will unfold? The Answer will come along soon...but I caution all of you that I may not be able to withstand another Brambring incident. Another Brambring could break me. Keep in mind that I haven't even told you the full story of what happened that fateful weekend, in order to protect certain associates as well as myself. I was in a state of extreme physical and mental duress...and although I battled through it, it was all a fruitless endeavor in the end. To do it all over again, with a bird that hits 10/10 on the majestic scale, would impact me in ways I cannot begin to fathom.

Thinking about this owl, specifically thinking about driving up there and not seeing it, instantly strikes me with The Fear...this is what causes people to not chase birds...but I may have to take the gamble anyways. After all, as The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive always says, it is better to be Wrong than it is to be Stupid.

Photos of the bird that is driving me crazy courtesy of Rob Fowler, a Humboldt County birding wizard. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Winter Mexican Tour Y2K16, Day 5: Ant Swarm!

Just on the south slope of Cerro San Juan, the nerds walked up a side road to see what they could find. Quickly, they hit a solid mixed flock. Hermit Warblers were very confiding and a nice trip bird; bizarrely, this was a life bird for Stilt, which enraged Dipper Dan. We all still wonder how she could have waited so long to see one; she wept openly and without remorse (a history she will no doubt attempt to revise), while Dipper Dan screamed at her in anger. Flycatcher Jen said nothing, plotting her next move to draw more attention to herself. Don Francisco contemplated all the money he was not spending by being in the middle of a Mexican forest. I, the birder philosopher-king, passed judgement on all of them, bitterly telling them they were doing it wrong.

The birds in this flock were unusually confiding. They wouldn't leave; it was a sedentary flock...the kind of flock dreams are made of. This Pine (Hammond's?) Flycatcher anchored it from a fenceline.

Finally, the five gringo idiots realized why the flock wasn't going was sitting on top of an army ant swarm! Massive columns of ants marched across the road, while the birds lurked just overhead, ready to grab insects flushed by the deadly swarm. This heavily-armed caterpillar was found in the midst of the ants, not giving a fuck. It's long, protective hairs repelled ant attacks with great efficiency; it was an unusual addition to one of the ant formations it had become swept up with.

Hepatic Tanagers were quite common during out trip, and were particularly keen on taking advantage of the ant swarm.

Can a bird be both red and subdued? Let this question cause you pain and heartache no more, for the answer is a male Hepatic Tanager.

Confiding bird. I think I like Hepatic Tanagers more now.

The star of the flock was this crippling male Flame-colored Tanager; this species never ceases to melt face.

Different members of the flock would often line up on barbed wire fences, as the ants would travel directly beneath them. This led to a number of amusing combinations of birds sitting in close proximity to each other. Here is the Flame-colored and the female Hepatic.

Painted Redstart (Whitestart) and pineish flycatcher.

A couple Ivory-billed Woodcreepers added a bit of tropical flavor to the flock, which otherwise contained a lot of species that make it to southeast Arizona.

Finally we left the ants and headed downhill in search of new, non-sedentary flocks and other birds. This Blue-throated Hummingbird was the first of the trip.

White-throated Thrushes were encountered on the regular; at least they are more interesting to look at than Clay-colored Thrushes.

Red-headed Tanager was the final group lifer of the day; we found a flock eating coffee berries right next to the road on the way down the road. Crippling little bastards. Getting these birds this afternoon turned out to be critical, because we didn't see any for the rest of the trip!

Pine Flycatchers turned out to be pretty common in higher elevations during this trip. How do I know this? Empids in Mexico are bizarrely cooperative.

Here is a female Mexican Woodnymph; we found this highly range-restricted species in multiple locations. Too bad that luck didn't carry over into many other species of hummingbirds.

Cerro San Juan was fantastic birding; if you are so inclined, our eBird checklist is right here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Winter Mexican Tour Y2K16, Days 3-5: North of San Blas, La Bajada, Cerro San Juan

After winning all morning at Lower Singayta, we decided to go shrimp ponding north of San Blas. There are a large number of shrimp ponds out this way, and since four our of five of us needed Collared Plover, it seemed like a logical place to bird late in the afternoon.

The shrimp ponds were extremely birdy....a nice variety of waders, some gulls, some terns, sandpipers, passerines in the mangroves....great area to wrack up a big species list. However, we dipped on Collared Plover...which we would do for the rest of the time in Mexico. If a nemesis bird exists for me south of the border, it is this goddamn plover.

We came across one pond filled to the brim with wood storks. I've never seen so many in one place.

Wood Storks galore! Here is our best checklist from birding this area, which we visited multiple days.

At different points in the week we ran into local birding luminaries Mark Stackhouse and Francisco Garcia, who both offered good birding advice. They were both pretty stoked on Chacalilla, one of the emerging hotspots in the area. Chacalilla is a short drive from San Blas, and essentially any of the roads leading out of town can offer quality birding (thorn forest, open country and wetland birds). Here is male Orchard Oriole posing pleasantly, south of town.

The view east of Chcalilla; note the pendant cacique nests hanging off the tree. Shortly after this photo was taken, the sky became plagued with Lesser Nighthawks.

There are hella Common Black-Hawks down Mexico way, this one in Chacalilla. We saw several black-hawks that we were never able to ID to species, so there is a decent chance we saw Great Black-Hawk at some point and didn't know it. Birding is hard.

On Day 4 the nerds went to La Bajada, where the birding was not quite facemelting but it ended up being very, very good. Lifers for me this morning were Mexican Woodnymph, Gray-crowned Woodpecker, Rosy Thrush-Tanager (!!!), Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and Yellow Grosbeak. Not bad eh? Another highlight was an enormous fruiting fig (aka "the miracle tree") that was overflowing with Citreoline Trogons and other frugivores...I've never seen a tree overflowing with trogons before, and I highly recommend it. You can see our La Bajada checklist right here.

On Day 5 the nerds went further afield, out to Cerro San Juan. We approached via the traditional northern route (Mark suggested approaching from the south instead, but we got lost). Birding was steady but never overwhelming...gobs of Tufted Flycatchers, some Slate-throated Redstarts, lots of Berylline Hummingbirds. Finally we got to the big open area where the road reached its highest elevation, and things got really interesting here. We started running into lots of nice flocks, and the abundance of hummingbirds was impressive...eventually we found a particular field that was buzzing with Rufous, White-eared and Berylline Hummingbirds...I've never seen anything quite like it, it was heck of intense. More and more trip birds began to appear...White-striped Woodcreeper (lifer!), Pine (lifer!) and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, Cassin's Kingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Grace's and Crescent-chested Warblers, etc.

The open area around La Noria is known for its accommodating population of Spotted Wrens. They did not disappoint.

The number of Greater Pewees we saw in Mexico leads me to believe that there are far more Greater Pewees in the world than I had previously conceived of. Don't worry, they never got old.

There was a lot of fear and loathing when it came to hummingbirds on this trip. One of the high-priority target birds for all of us was Bumblebee Hummingbird, which we successfully dipped on excessively. We spent a significant amount of time at the right elevation/habitats, but we were empty-handed in the end. Pain. Calliope Hummingbirds like this one offered false hope on several occasions, but hey seeing a Calliope is a lot better than seeing nothing at all.

It turns out that there are a shitload of White-eared Hummingbirds out there in the world. This should not surprise me, yet somehow it does. One would think I would have crippling photos to show for it, but I am putting this questionable one up instead. Blogging works in mysterious ways.

A long time ago, in a county far far away, I saw a Gray Silky-Flycatcher. It was in suitable habitat...suitable habitat in Orange County. It was weird. It was a known bird, and the ruthless Bird Police used their malevolent powers to reject the record based on grounds of uncertain origin. There are those who are still butthurt about this.

Finally, after all those years, I have seen other Gray Silky-Flycatchers. They have eluded me in Mexico before, but not anymore. They are birds impressive in mellowness and plumage. I counted this individual as a lifer. It felt really, really good.

In the afternoon, a random walk in the woods led to one of the best and most mesmerizing flocks of the trip, which was illuminated by this glowing male Flame-colored Tanager. More on those birds next time.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Winter Mexican Tour Y2K16, Days 1-3: Lo De Marcos and Lower Singayta

Bat Falcons were easy to see in Lo De Marcos, on our first morning of birding. We never saw them again! Mexico is a mysterious place.

Nerds. Dweebs. Dork-sympathizers. I have returned from an eventful West Mexican bird trip. We birded the states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima, which are incredibly bird-rich states, as promised. Rather than just regurgitate mediocre photos from the trip, I'm going to try to write this all up in a way where it could actually be useful (!!!) to birders who may be heading that way in the next few years. The Howell birdfinding guide is still a fantastic resource, but Mexico changes...some hotspots are no longer accessible and new hotspots always seem to be popping up, as the whole area is definitely underbirded, with the exception of the areas immediately surrounding San Blas.

We wanted to rent an SUV originally, but the price was too rich for our blood, so we ended up getting a minivan for the five of us. This worked out quite well, since we had a little extra clearance (always a good thing in Mexico) and had enough space so things did not get too cluttered. We barged the van up every type of conceivable road and managed to put some dings in it...but were only charged $80 extra dollars! A Mexican miracle! If you are going to rent a vehicle, I would recommend National in Puerto Vallarta.

Here is how things played out:

January 2 - Fly into Puerto Vallarta, night in Lo De Marcos (Nayarit)
January 3 - Lo De Marcos, San Blas, night in San Blas
January 4 - Lower Singayta, Shrimp Ponds, night in San Blas
January 5 - La Bajada, Shrimp Ponds, Chacalilla, night in San Blas
January 6 - Cerro San Juan, night in San Blas
January 7 - Chacalilla, Rio La Tovara (boat trip), night in San Blas
January 8 - Lower Singayta, Isla Del Rey (Peso Island), night in San Blas
January 9  - Tecuitata, night at Rancho Primavera
January 10 - Rancho Primavera, Provincia Road, night at Rancho Primavera
January 11 - Racho Primavera, Barranca El Choncho, night in Autlan
January 12 - Puerto Los Mazos, night in Autlan
January 13 - Microondas San Francisco, Volcan de Colima (RMO Viboras and other stops), night in Ciudad Guzman
January 14 - Volcan de Colima (main access road and other stops), Laguna Zapotlan, night in Ciudad Guzman
January 15 - Vocan de Fuego, night Colima
January 16 - Colima to Laguna La Maria, night in Barra De Navidad
January 17 - Playa Del Oro, night at Rancho Primavera
January 18 - Rancho Primavera, Boca De Tomates, fly out of Puerto Vallarta

Sinaloa Crow (endemic!) was my first lifer of the trip. They are tiny, slender, like perching extremely close to one another, and sound like quail. This is my new favorite crow. Lo De Marcos, Nayarit.

Our first night we attempted to stay in San Francisco, which is on the way to San Blas. This was a mistake. The town may be mellow the rest of the year, but that first night there was a huge, raging party in town and it was a complete clusterfuck. Really, it was a disaster, and Flycatcher Jen was permanently affected. The silver lining was eating delicious tacos. The huge, raging Mexican party theme continued for over half the time we were in the country in multiple towns...Christmas seems to drag on forever, and then its another holiday (something to do with saints)...things didn't really settle down until January 11 or so. If I were to do this trip again, I would not schedule it between Christmas and mid-January unless you are into huge, confusing events that occupy the middle of towns and cause panic and despair if you are unlucky enough to be the one driving.

After our failure at San Francisco, we tried the next town over, Lo De Marcos. I had done some Google Earth scouting before the trip and saw that there was a lot of good habitat near the edge of town, so it seemed like a logical place to stay if we wanted some easy birding the next morning. We spent the night in some hella cheap bungalows (bung) on the main road into town off Highway 200. The beds were on raised cement platforms! Incredible.

Nerds study feverishly before our the first morning of birding.

The next morning we just walked southwest until we got into some birdable habitat, and were hugely rewarded. Turns out Lo De Marcos is not a bad place to end up if you wake up there with bird fever. It ended up being an extremely productive morning with lots of life birds...Russet-crowned Motmot, Yellow-winged Cacique, Happy Wren, Sinaloa Wren, Orange-breasted Bunting, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, etc. Camino a las Minitas (check Google Maps) was particularly good. Our eBird checklist is here.

Easily the best bird at Lo De Marcos was this Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, which was a lifer for everyone and the only one of the trip. HJ to Dipper Dan for this one. Brilliant bird, though obviously not something that wants to be photographed. I really like this photo of it, though I suspect you do not understand why.

Rufous-bellied Chachalaca (endemic!) were widespread and common in Nayarit, though this bird at Lo De Marcos was the only confiding individual interested in being crushed. It munched leaves quite casually next to the road.

I dig the big rhino tuft. A lifer for all.

Later that day we made it to San Blas, where we promptly checked in to El Bucanero for our entire stay there. We did this because it was really, really cheap. It was a step up from the bungalows in Lo De Marcos, but not a very big step up. Somehow, styrofoam was a part of one of the rooms, and actually had been painted. Anyways, it was walking distance to a lot of good places to eat (as well as the dock that has the pangas that will take you to Isla Del Rey), and it was right on the main drag, so the location was solid. People often were raging out on the street at night, but birding made us SO SLEEPY that it wasn't really an issue.

Mexican Parrotlets (endemic!) look like leaves. They are tiny, green, and adorable. I like them very much. Photographed at Lower Singayta, Nayarit.

The morning of Day 3 we hit lower Singayta, which was very birdy. Lifers galore. The eBird checklist is here. I'm not sure if it still earns the title as the best spot near San Blas (per Howell), but it's certainly worth birding. There's a solid diversity of birds here...raptors, waterbirds, flocks of wintering birds, and lots of regional specialties.

Crane Hawk was a solid lifer this morning...we would go on to not find another one the rest of the trip. Such pink legs! Such gray cere! I've waited a long time to see this bird...a long time.

Citreoline Trogon (endemic!) was another group lifer. We would end up seeing many of these yellow-bellied tree-beasts during our trip.

Pale-billed Woodpeckers are a fairly common bird down there, but they never fail to impress. This was a "Flycatcher Jen Only" lifer, one of many that she wracked up during our heroic birding tour.

We ran across many Elegant Trogons on the trip as well. What a nice bird to repeatedly run across....much easier to come by than in Arizona.

Something we didn't see a lot of was Scrub Euphonia. It turns out you can really appreciate euphonias when you don't see them constantly and have to remember a lot of field marks. It also helps when they just sit next to you and sing, giving none fucks, refusing to leave a favored tree. This is Godman's Euphonia, the subspecies endemic to West Mexico. Check out the white undertail coverts.

More from Nayarit to come soon, obvi.