Birding for Locals – Los Angeles – August

5 08 2020

Lazuli Bunting – Luke Tiller

August is when I start to get excited to bird my local patch again. Vina Vieja is something of an bird wasteland in birding summer (June and July), but as we enter August post breeding wanderers (like White-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker)  and migrants start to reappear in force with diversity increasing as we head through the month.

Family Focus – Cardinalidae

If I was focusing on a family to look at this month it might be cardinalidae. Essentially cardinals and their allies. Interestingly this now includes the genus Piranga. Confusingly these birds have the common name tanager (Western, Summer, Scarlet etc) even though they seemingly aren’t tanagers at all, and just for added confusion the only real tanager now found in the USA doesn’t have tanager in its name: Morelet’s Seedeater!

To me one of the signs of fall are Western Tanagers suddenly appearing as migrants in my yard or at Vina as happened the other day. Other cardinalidae start to show up too including Black-headed Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings. Cardinalidae make up some of the most common vagrants in Southern California too in the shape of Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Buntings.


Blue Grosbeak – Luke Tiller

Late July and early August Lazuli Buntings start to wander away from breeding sites and gather locally at sites where there are lots of open habitat and seeds available in order to fatten up for migration, places like Peck Pit, Hahamongna or the San Gabriel River Spreading Grounds. It’s a great time to go see these birds, as well as an opportunity to test your skills identifying young birds or adults that are molting into basic (non-breeding) plumage. Trying to pick out young, female or basic plumaged male Passerina Buntings is a nice challenge and with the possibility of both rarities and hybrids it’s one that can tax the most experienced of birders skills.

Though Lazuli Buntings will definitely dominate in August, there’s always the chance of finding Blue Grosbeak away from their breeding grounds, if you get really lucky an Indigo Bunting or if you win the birding lottery a Painted Bunting. Studying up on these birds and learning the field marks before you head into the field will help you improve your chances of finding something interesting. A blog post from friend Julian Hough on IDing vagrant buntings (here).


Wilson’s Snipe – Luke Tiller

Family Focus – Shorebirds.

August is still in the peak of shorebird migration and diversity is increasing. Later migrants are starting to show up as we head through the month including things that peak later like Pectoral Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe. More and more juvenile birds are arriving too, allowing birders to hone their skills comparing them to the adults. More on shorebirding in last month’s essay (here).

August is typically a great time to be getting out on the water looking for seabirds as well, although the opportunities to do that safely this year seem difficult for most people. Of course given the right conditions it’s possible to see some of these pelagic species from shore given some dedicated time seawatching.


Grey Flycatcher (Vina Vieja) – Luke Tiller

Local (Patch) Birding

My local patch is Vina Vieja Park in Paasadena and I published an ode to it and patch birding generally that was republished in the Pomona Valley Audubon Newsletter a couple of years back (here). The great thing about patch birding done right is that it gives you a new appreciation for even the most common of birds. I think it took a couple of years for me to finally see a Eurasian Collared Dove at Vina Vieja and that day was no less exciting for the fact that you can easily find them less than a mile away

I’ve always liked urban birding and revel in finding birds eking out an existence in the most challenging of human environments. Here’s some notes from the blog from a decade ago, dedicated to my patch in New York City (blog link here).

Here are a couple thoughts on finding your own patch if you don’t yet have one:

  1. It should be close to your home. Ideally you want to be able to get there in 10 minutes maximum. It’s the kind of place you can hit on the way too or from work or just on a whim.
  2. One thing I like to do is compare the ebird hotspot map to google maps and see if there are local parks without hotspots or with hotspots containing very few checklists? This might be the perfect way to pick your patch too? (ebird hotspot link).
  3. Is your patch different to the surrounding area? Part of the reason I picked Vina is that it’s an open area in the middle of a fairly wooded neighborhood. In theory this makes it the most appealing place for open country species in the local vicinity. Google maps can help you find places by looking at hybrid or photographic maps.
  4. Does it have open water? Water is a big draw for migrant birds in L.A. The chances are if your local park has some, it’s already a well known hotspot. That said some lush grass and some large trees might equally be a nice draw for birds. Understory also seems to be at a premium in city parks, but is invaluable for migrant birds in my experience.

American Golden Plover – Luke Tiller

Vagrant Hunting

Late August sees the start of peak of White-winged Doves showing up in Los Angeles. This is a bird that feels like it should be more common here and for that reason I refuse to chase them with the expectation that I’ll eventually find one somewhere in LA County. So far I’m still looking, perhaps you can beat me to one? Best bet seems to be checking coastal migrant traps and sea watch sites.

Shorebirds are still your best bet for turning up something really rare locally with Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Ruff,  and Little Stint tallied in Los Angeles during this month.

Indigo Buntings – see section on Cardinalidae for ID and guidance on finding (there’s one at Hahamongna as I write this in 2020).

As a personal reminder that something interesting can show up at any time and anywhere Catherine and I were lucky enough to have a Zone-tailed hawk fly over over our house on July 28th. It was definitely the bird from Monrovia as it had the same damaged primaries as the photos from Monrovia earlier in the year. Where it had been for the last two or three months though I have no idea (ebird checklist with a photo here).

Typical PAS Field Trips

At the beginning of August Larry Allen leads a shorebirding trip to the LA River focused on Willow Street (see the shorebirding section for July for directions). At the end of August we typically have a trip outto Piute Ponds. Note in the shorebird section for last month that unfortunately Piute Ponds will be off limits to birders because of the ongoing COVID19 situation.

Green Backed Rufous Hummingbirds

25 07 2020

Rufous Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Rufous vs Allen’s Hummingbird is an age old ID conundrum here in Southern California. While Allen’s Hummingbird are resident year round in Los Angeles, Rufous are just passing migrants whose breeding range barely dips into the very far north of the state. Though they have been seen outside the following window, migrant Rufous are mainly an ID issue for local birders between the first week of February and the end of May and the last week of June through the third week of September. Beyond those times it’s probably relatively safe to assume you are looking at an Allen’s Hummingbird unless you have direct evidence to the contrary.

I think it’s safe to say that if you asked most local birders they’d know that it’s very difficult to identify Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds in the field unless you are looking at adult male birds. The common theory goes that most female and juvenile birds are best left unidentified to species during the aforementioned window, but that if you are looking at adult males the orange backed birds are probably Rufous and the green backed ones probably Allen’s.


Allen’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Though of course I’ve known that around ten percent of adult male Rufous Hummingbirds can be green backed I think I’ve somewhat lazily presumed that one in ten is a low enough percentage that you’re probably fairly safe assuming any green backed adult male Rufous/Allen’s here in Altadena is an Allen’s even during this migration period.

This spring however (2020) was an excellent one for finding Rufous Hummingbirds at one’s feeders. I think cool temps and rain in February and March had stunted blooms and left birds more dependent on feeder set-ups. For some reason our yard has never been that popular with adult male Allen’s Hummingbirds, so when I suddenly started seeing a fair few green backed adult male Rufous/Allen’s coming to the feeders I started getting curious about their true identities.


Feeder Hummingbirds – Luke Tiller

The only way to truly separate these two species are by looking at individual tail feathers. This is essentially impossible to do without a camera as you need spread views of their tails. I therefore set myself the task of photographing a few of these green backed birds in order to uncover their identities.

Though the outer two tail feathers (retrices four and five) on adult male Rufous Hummingbirds are wider than adult male Allen’s Hummingbirds, the most obvious identifier is retrix two (the tail feather to the right or left of the two central tail feathers) which has a distinct notch on its inner edge, creating a distinctly shaped feather different to the smoothly tapered retrix two (R2) of an Allen’s Hummingbird.


Allen’s vs Rufous Hummingbird Tail Pattern – Luke Tiller

To my surprise when I started taking spread tail photos of these green backed birds I discovered that many of them were in fact Rufous Hummingbirds. In fact at my feeders I had more green backed Rufous Hummingbirds than I had actual Allen’s Hummingbirds.

To illustrate the point, here are the tail patterns of these two green backed birds in the photo above. First the right hand bird that’s perched in the shot. Following that is a blow up of the above feeder photo. Again showing the distinct tail notch of an adult male Rufous Hummingbird. This bird is even more extensively green backed than the one on the right.


Rufous Hummingbird with notched R2 – Luke Tiller

After taking these two photographs I’m now convinced that I need to be much more careful about how I enter data into eBird, even when it comes to identifying the supposedly more easily identifiable adult male Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds. Every year there are Rufous Hummingbirds that show up outside the typical window, but I think Kimball Garrett’s challenge of photographing an adult male Rufous in midwinter has yet to find a claimant for that prize.

Young male and female birds of all ages are even harder to identify. If you want to do some research into identifying Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds, check out Sheri Williamson’s excellent blog post (here). I highly recommend her hummingbird field guide too (here).


Blow up of above photo. Note notched R2 of Rufous Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Birding for locals – Los Angeles – July

21 07 2020

Long-billed Curlew – Luke Tiller

Family Focus – Shorebirds.

July sees the start of the peak of much of shorebird migration with adult birds arriving first and the juveniles a few weeks after. Unlike spring migration, where we are generally waiting for later in the season for rarities, some of LA County’s rarest shorebirds have been found very early in shorebird migration including both county Red-necked Stints (July 16 and 23) and one of our two county Little Stints (July 23).

As we get later into the month we will start to see juvenile shorebirds returning south too. This is a great time to work on aging shorebirds, which is often a key part of identifying many species successfully.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of open water there aren’t really a huge number of places to view shorebirds in the local area. By far and away the best spot is the LA River at Willow Street in Long Beach (eBird hotspot here)  I always park on the east side of the river on De Forest Ave. Google gives the address there as 2600 (here). I also never leave anything in my car here after having seen a car broken into here before.

There are lots of other places that might be worth exploring though including the Rio Hondo South of Garvey (though word is that water levels this year might be too high for shorebirds) and the LA River in Glendale near the Bette Davis Picnic Area.

There are even fewer spots in LA County to look for shorebirds this year due to the closure of Piute Ponds to the public. One spot on the desert side that might be worth checking is Amargosa Creek Flood Basin (eBird Hotspot here). You might also find some shorebirds on the sod fields on East Ave 50 too, though personally I’ve only really had luck there a handful of times.

LA Beaches are surprisingly under watched at this time of year and are well worth checking out for shorebirds as well as terns and nearshore seabirds. There is always the chance of turning up a rarity too (see Vagrant Hunting section below).


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Family Focus – Hummingbirds

Shorebirds aren’t the only birds on the move in July, Rufous Hummingbirds are undertaking their incredible migration from breeding sites as far north as Alaska to wintering sites in Oaxaca, southern Mexico – a journey of up to 4000 miles. Hummingbird watching is the perfect socially distanced birding as it is possible to attract them to your own balcony or yard with feeders and plantings. Plantings in local parks and open spaces also promise great hummingbird watching possibilities too.

It’s a great time to study hummingbirds as there are lots of young and female birds to work through the identity of. Photographing tricky individuals can be a good part of the learning process and some species are almost certainly best left unidentified without good photos: like Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds. See this useful page on the ID challenge (here). I wrote a blog post about my observations trying to ID Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds this spring on my blog (here).

Across state lines in Arizona the monsoon season is about to enter full swing. This is a wonderful time of year for birding in Arizona as migrant hummingbirds and wanderers head to Arizona to take advantage of the blooms in their “second spring”. If you haven’t visited Arizona before in late summer, I’d definitely add this to your list of future must do local trips. Though much less common there is some pattern of vagrancy of hummingbirds here in California at this time of year too, so maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and discover a Mexican Violetear, Violet-crowned Hummingbird or Blue-throated Mountain-Gem (Previously Blue-throated Hummingbird) at your feeders!


Red Crossbill – Luke Tiller

Mountains: Beat the Heat

As the San Gabriel Valley heats up, it is the perfect time to head to the mountains to escape the heat and see some cool high elevation species. As a rule, the higher the elevation the more interesting the species tend to get.

There is plenty of species to be found here that are easiest (or only) found during these summer months: Black-chinned Sparrows, Hermit Warblers, Green-tailed Towhees and Flammulated Owls among others. Plus there’s Cassin’s Finches, Clark’s Nutcrackers and other exciting montane goodies. This year (2020) seems to have been a particularly good one for Red Crossbills (according to Lance Benner) so a timely visit would seem appropriate for those hoping to seek them out.

I’ve particularly enjoyed exploring a few lesser known spots in the San Gabriels this year up Route 39 and along Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road. The eastern end of the mountains is almost always under birded and worth an explore (as Naresh’s Red-eyed Vireo from earlier in the year highlighted). My top tip for birding the mountains is to remember to bring your own bird seed for visits to Grassy Hollow and Chilao. Though these spots are excellent for any number of species, the filling of the feeders is sporadic. I have even known people bring their own hummingbird feeders to hang up while they explore these spots.


“Least” Bell’s Vireo – Luke Tiller

Last Call for Summer Birds

As we start to head into August more and more breeding birds will be leaving Los Angeles, so that means that time is running out if you were hoping to see anything from Bell’s Vireos to Black Swifts this year. This eBird spreadsheet should help you work out when birds are more or less easily found in Los Angles County. Check out the link (here).

If you want to work out what’s around when you are out in the field I highly recommend Birdseye Birding App. It’s been useful to me on numerous occasions both professionally and when out enjoying a day’s birding. It essentially allows you to simply research what birds have been seen locally and has a number of filters to help refine your search criteria. Link to the App (here).


Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Local (Patch) Birding

As we head into late July, we will start to see many more species heading south for the winter. This means that all your local parks start to hold possibilities for interesting birds. A quick visit to my local park yesterday (July 29th) saw me tally a few birds that were on the move already including Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo and Lark Sparrow. When I moved to Pasadena I quickly identified (mainly thanks to my dog Possum) Vina Vieja Park as my favored local patch. It has been good to me over the past few years with over 150 species tallied there, including such rarities as Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, Broad-winged Hawk and Black-and-White Warbler. On April 20, 2020 I logged 70 species around this park in just a single morning, which I think highlights the excellent possibilities local parks offer for great birding (checklist here). In next month’s issue I’ll give some suggestions and thoughts on picking and making the most of your own local patch.


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – Luke Tiller

Vagrant Hunting

Many birders enjoy the challenge of looking for and finding rare birds. These rare species often exhibit some pattern of vagrancy so there are better times of year to be looking out for them than others. As well as the aforementioned shorebirds here’s some other things to keep your eyes open for:

Odd Ducks! Though summer isn’t usually prime time for duck watching there have been a number of rare ducks show up in southern California in this time including such rarities as Tufted Duck, Harlequin Duck and Fulvous Whistling Duck.

Shoreline Seabirds: Magnificent Frigatebird sightings in LA are most common in July and August and there have been sightings of all five booby species during both months though oddly the one Blue-footed is from the rather unlikely location of Hansen Dam! Incredibly a couple of weeks after publishing this a Magnificent Frigatebird was spotted in Pasadena at Hahamongna!!!!! (ebird checklist here).

Early Easterners: Some Eastern species that seem to show up here in the west fairly early in migration include Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds (as if to underline this one appeared just as I was writing this on July 15 2020 at Sepulveda Basin) and Indigo Buntings are often to be found among the hordes of Lazuli Buntings that can start to be found at places where there are weedy seed heads to be found in the LA Basin.

Just to highlight that you never know what you are going to see if you’re birding, I was lucky enough to have a Zone-tailed Hawk fly over my yard on July 28th 2020. It was definitely the same bird that was in Monrovia earlier in the year, but at this point it had been missing for two and a half months (ebird checklist here)!


Pectoral Sandpiper – Luke Tiller

Typical Seasonal PAS Field Trips.

Typically this is a fairly quiet time for PAS field trips but some of our standard trips include one to Wrightwood to check out E. Blue Ridge Rd (which starts at Inspiration Point here) and sometimes heads to Grassy Hollow and Jackson Lake too. The road out to Guffy Campground can be pretty rough so high clearance is advised. The first three miles of the road are most productive in my experience.

Though the COVID19 pandemic is certainly crimping my birding travels I am thankful that it’s a hobby that can still be enjoyed during these difficult times. I’m also grateful for the opportunity it’s giving me to explore more of the wonderful flora and fauna of Los Angeles County. I hope this series of essays will help spur you to find new places to explore.

Panama Migration Spectacular Tour 2019

3 12 2019

Three-toed Sloth – Luke Tiller

Day 1

Our Migration Spectacular Tour kicked off with a relaxing arrivals day at Canopy Tower, our home for the next week. The easy day gave the group time to settle in and just observe some of the many birds and other flora and fauna to be found at Canopy Tower. Among the regular bird species to be found around the tower: Palm Tanager, Plain-colored Tanager and Green Honeycreeper we had plenty of birds that just a few weeks before had been up in the forests of the United States and Canada. These familiar birds were either arriving on their wintering grounds or passing through Panama for points south: Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Kingbird and Acadian Flycatcher.

The two migrant highlights on the day had to be a couple of latish Canada Warblers that were both bound for northern South America: Colombia, Ecuador or Peru. Of the birds local to Canopy Tower, Violet-bellied Hummingbirds are always a highlight, additionally nice views of hunting Short-tailed Hawk and scoped views of a perched Blue-headed Parrot are hard to beat.

We ended our day with a hearty meal and a proper introduction to the tower and our plans for the week from our trusty guide for the week Alexis Sanchez.


Juvenile Mississippi Kite – Luke Tiller

Day 2

Following a relaxed first day around the tower we were soon into the thick of the birding action with a ride out to Finca Bayano. This predominantly agricultural spot, east of the airport, is great for raptors and the rice fields here approximate good habitat for waders, shorebirds and ducks too.

The habitat here is unlike anything else on the tour itinerary which meant there were lots of birds to be found that were unlikely to be seen anywhere else too. After a couple of quick stops, we were graced by the presence of one of our main targets for the day, a stunning Pearl Kite. This is a somewhat uncommon bird in Panama, but one that seems to have a favored tree at Finca Bayano. A stunning little raptor that must rate as one of the favorites of the tour. Other treasured discoveries here included Pied Water-Tyrant, Plain-breasted Ground Dove and Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

The rice fields yielded a wealth of herons and egrets including prehistoric Wood Storks and regal Cocoi Herons. Highlights of these marshes though were a couple of stunning Bare-throated Tiger Herons, a specialty locally of Finca Bayano, and an uncommon migrant in the shape of a Roseate Spoonbill, which was probably as exciting for our guide Alex as it was for anyone else in the group.

The raptors at Finca provide much of the draw and to our Pearl Kite sighting we soon added White-tailed Kites, Roadside Hawks and snazzy Gray-lined Hawks. Two other specialty raptors are found here as well and we finally garnered great looks at both the somewhat cryptic Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures hiding among the Turkey Vultures and another raptor highlight of Finca Bayno: the dazzling Savanna Hawk.

All around us there were signs of raptor migration from previous days with Broad-winged Hawks and even a couple of late Mississippi Kites scattered through the surrounding woodlands. As the sun picked up these migrant hawks began to start to find thermals and renew their migration south. Soon there were thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures filling the skies around us. An amazing spectacle to behold.


Gray-capped Cuckoo – Luke Tiller

With our visit to Finca Bayano drawing to a close, I decided I wanted to try and get a look at a couple of hummingbird species we had thus far missed. We stopped the van at a likely spot on the way out and disembarked. It proved to be an auspicious decision. We had already done rather nicely with cuckoos on the morning with Greater Ani and Striped Cuckoo already nice additions to the more common Smooth-billed Anis and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. When I got on a bird one of our group had requested help with the identity of I immediately realized we were looking at a another cuckoo species, a  Coccyzus cuckoo that I didn’t recognize. As I got Alex on it, it was clear it was a cuckoo he wasn’t 100% familiar with either. After some fumbling we finally got the whole group on the bird and our group photographer even managed to get a couple of pretty nice photos of what turned out to be just the eighth record of Gray-capped Cuckoo for Panama. This species is uncommon across its usual range and was an incredible find for the tour – a truly rare bird species (more on this species online here).

This was the perfect way to end our first full morning and underlined the decision to add this wonderful birding site to our tour itinerary.

After lunch we had quick stops at Costa Del Este and Panama Viejo. Though there was a nice mix of water birds and coastal species, there wasn’t much of note at either stop beyond the regulars and with a little rain settling in we decided to head back to the tower after enjoying some nice views of a “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler.


Geoffroy’s Tamarin – Luke Tiller

Day 3

After a very active day the day before we decided to start out with a nice relaxing morning around the lodge. The morning however kicked off with a bang when a migrant Black Swift appeared up over the tower heading for wintering grounds in Brazil. Amazing to think that less than 20 years ago the wintering grounds of this enigmatic breeding bird from the US were still unknown and were suspected to be in well north of this sighting in Mexico. More magical migration moments logged over that morning included Purple Martin, Swainson’s Thrush and a pretty Blackburnian Warbler.

Our hike down the lodge entrance road wasn’t overly birdy but was productive for a couple of desirable species including Golden-crowned Spadebill, Stripe-throated Hermit and avian highlight of the morning the diminutive Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (one of the world’s smallest passerine birds). The moment of the morning however had to be our encounter with Panamanian Night Monkeys. These awesome nocturnal monkeys are only found in Panama and the Choco region of Colombia (with a few unconfirmed Costa Rican sightings). Being nocturnal they are very difficult to see and so visiting them at a roost discovered by Alexis was an incredible privilege.


Panamanian Night Monkey – Luke Tiller

After lunch we headed for Gamboa Rainforest resort. Though it was sprinkling on and off we didn’t allow the wet weather to spoil the birding here. In fact, the puddles of water seemed to aid views of some birds, with both Rufescent Tiger-Herons and Gray-cowled Wood-Rails splashing through puddles to our delight.

Showier highlights here included our first Yellow-throated Toucans perched on the hillside above the resort as well as a stunning Crimson-crested Woodpecker and our only Flame-rumped Tanagers of the tour. Not to be outdone were seven species of warblers and a bunch of other migrants like Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Local species highlights here included Masked Tityra, Cinnamon Becard and Golden-collared Manakin.

We ended our afternoon out with a stop at the Canopy B&B where we enjoyed both some cover from the drizzle and some nice feeder action. Avian delicacies here included Whooping Motmot, Golden-hooded Tanager, Crimson Backed-Tanager and Buff-throated Saltator joining some Agoutis at the Banana feeders. Not to be outdone the hummingbird feeders were equally active with Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds dominating, but both Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits trying to get in on the action. A nice easy birding end to a damp day.


Yellow-throated Toucan – Luke Tiller

Day 4

This morning started with a jaunt out to perhaps one of the tropics best birding locations: Pipeline Road. First up we needed to pay homage to the White-throated Crakes of Summit Ponds. Again we listened forlornly to their distinctive calls without laying eyes on one. We weren’t completely out of luck though here as we managed to get unexpectedly nice views of one of the Least Bitterns that call the ponds home.

Our journey along the road found the birding slow but steady with avian treasures revealing themselves as we journeyed: spiffy Black-breasted Puffbirds, a lurking streamside Green Kingfisher, an impressive Crimson-crested Woodpecker and a confiding Gray-breasted Dove that posed graciously while we all got scope views. As we worked our way down the road, we uncovered migrant birds too including a trifecta of catharus thrushes: Gray-cheeked, Veery and ubiquitous Swainson’s Thrushes. There were warblers too including Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided.

Though we had heard Great Tinamou every morning and evening of our stay so far, we finally had good looks at one as it wove through the dense roadside brush ahead of us. A nice highlight to a good morning’s birding. Almost as rewarding was getting views of a garrulous flock of roaming Purple-throated Fruitcrows a uniquely social member of the cotinga family which nests communally too.


Great Jacamar – Luke Tiller

After a nice roadside stop for lunch, we found ourselves thick in some birding action at a stream crossing stop. Our trogon sightings, especially, going rapidly from 0-60: first up were a beautiful pair of accommodating Slaty-tailed Trogons, joined soon after by a pair of spectacular White-tailed Trogons and finally a couple of elegant Black Throated Trogons too. It wasn’t just trogons keeping us entertained either. A diminutive Moustached Antwren perched perfectly to provide us great views of this charming little species and then, stealing the show completely, a Great Jacamar appeared. This incredible bird was incredibly accommodating and gave us extraordinary extended views of both its glittering emerald back and orange belly. A marvelous way to cap our day’s hike.

Of course, you always have to leave plenty of time to leave Pipeline Road as the birds there make it very hard to depart. Just on the way out we logged a couple of incredible mixed flock of birds with Cinnamon Woodpecker, Black-striped Woodcreeper and Yellow-backed Orioles among the mix. We ended our day back with a quick stop along the entrance road to Canopy Tower where one of the Canopy guides had relocated a roosting Black-and-White Owl. An excellent end to another wonderful day in Panama.


Tamandua – Luke Tiller

Day 5

A Dickcissel perched in the canopy of a Panamanian rainforest was an interesting start to our fifth day at Canopy Tower, though the group probably slightly preferred seeing a Blue Cotinga from the Canopy Tower platform during our early morning coffee birding. For those that had missed the Black-and-White Owls the day before we made a second stop to try see the birds and were treated to views of the whole owl family of three birds. A wonderful start to the day.

Our morning plans involved some birding at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Getting there was going to prove harder than expected, however. It started when we ran into Jorge (one of Canopy Tower’s up and coming young guides) who had found a Tamandua which was going to town on an ant nest. Getting extended views of this adorable arboreal anteater was an incredible early morning highlight.

A little further down the road we suddenly came upon a very accommodating Great Tinamou. Amazingly this bird was at a smallish ant swarm, a seemingly rare occurrence. Like a giant antbird the Tinamou seemed to be taking advantage of the insects fleeing the swarm and later seemed to partake in some anting behavior too. The swarm had also drawn in some real antbirds including Chestnut-backed, Spotted and Bicolored as well as several other species including White-whiskered Puffbird, Gray-headed Tanager and Cocoa Woodcreeper. As usual when there are ants around the birds provided excellent views and photo ops for the group.


Great Tinamou (anting) – Luke Tiller

When we got to the Rainforest Discovery Center the highlights there were almost certainly the hummingbird feeders. As well as getting good looks at Long-billed Hermit there were a couple of new hummingbird species for most participants to enjoy: the dazzling Violet-bellied Hummingbird and the equally flashy Crowned Woodnymph.

In the afternoon we took a ride to Summit Ponds. Here we found our main target, the wild looking Boat-billed Heron hiding among the dense pondside brush. As well as the herons we also managed to pick out a nice kingfisher trio: Amazon, Ringed and Green. The ponds also allowed us to compare a myriad of different flycatcher species including such confusing species as Rusty-margined and Social Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee and Lesser Kiskadee. We even got to see the Lesser Kiskadees out fishing the kingfishers, neat to see these flycatchers turn “fishcatchers”.


Garden Emerald – Luke Tiller

Day 6

Day six we decided to try a couple of new spots for the tour. First up was Camino De Cruces, a park on the edge of Panama City. Thanks to the drizzle the park wasn’t very birdy though we did manage to add a couple of sought-after species including the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet and a pretty Orange-billed Sparrow. Of our two antbirds, Dusky showed well for the group but White-bellied refused to appear apart from to a select few.

At Parque Metropolitano we were lucky to arrive just as the raptor migration was starting to heat up and we enjoyed watching several large groups of Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures pass over. The Swainson’s Hawks were putting on a particularly amazing show with birds of various ages and plumage patterns passing by. In the park itself we had more views of the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet but the scene stealers on this day were the beautiful Rosy Thrush-Tanagers that were working the deepest darkest corner of the park.

Next stop of a busy morning was a special request stop to try and find some Blue-footed Boobies. Following up on some recent-ish reports from eBird we found ourselves heading out along the Amador Causeway to Flamenco Island. Here on the offshore rocks we found, to much delight, eight spectacular Blue-footed Boobies. Though scope views were required, they were easily close enough to see their audaciously bright blue feet.


White-vented Plumeleteer – Luke Tiller

Our last morning stop was at the gardens of the amazing, Frank Gehry designed, Biomuseo. Here with raptor migration continuing apace overhead we sought out a couple of new hummingbirds. As well as the soaring raptor migrants passing by there were also plenty of local Magnificent Frigatebirds overhead, a few Brown Pelicans and a triplet of Peregrine Falcons.

In the gardens we had soon uncovered a nice mix of seedeaters including a handful of dazzling Saffron Finches. Hummingbirds however were our main quarry. After a couple of brief flybys, we managed to get great looks at a couple of snazzy Black-throated Mangos. A couple of the Palo Verde trees were abuzz with hummingbird activity and we finally managed to eke out views of another couple of pretty hummingbird species with relatively limited ranges: Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Garden Emerald.

We’d managed to squeeze quite a lot of activity into the morning and even our lunch break was a hive of birding action with a pair of stunning King Vultures putting in an amazing close flyby appearance up on the tower. In addition, a Yellow-throated Vireo was a nice add-on to our growing list of migrants.

Our afternoon was an essential element of any visit to Panama, a visit to the Panama Canal and Miraflores locks. One of our participants even had a personal connection to this place: a relative who had worked on the construction of the canal over 100 years ago. They found records of him at the database for workers at the canal at the museum. Personally, I always like to make the Miraflores Locks visit a little more entertaining bird wise by seeing how many species of birds we can see from the viewing platform. Proof that it’s not a bad place to go birding was that we managed to discover 44 species of birds from a stationary point in just the two hours we spent together on the platform.


Speckled Tanager – Luke Tiller

Day 7

Going to the canal the previous day meant that we had saved one of the best days for last with a trip to local highlands at Cerro Azul. Elevation here brings a mix of different and exciting species. One of our main targets was a breathtaking and endemic woodpecker: Striped-cheeked. As we searched for the woodpecker, we were entertained by a nice mix of new species including Bay-headed Tanager, Violet-headed Hummingbird and one of my favorite columbids: Scaled Pigeon.

When our driver spotted a couple of Little Tinamous dash across a trail we decided to focus our energies there for a while and we were rewarded with incredible views of these skulky little birds. Seeing any tinamou is always a treat and we were thankful for our driver’s sharp eyes.

Dodging brief showers, quality sightings came thick and fast: Panama Flycatcher, Black Hawk-Eagle, White Hawk, Golden-winged Warbler. Highlights of the morning had to be the mixed flock of tanagers that revealed incredible Speckled Tanagers and a hummingbird that is seemingly only seen away from feeders: Purple Crowned Fairy. Eventually we nailed down views of Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and what views they were, usually this is a bird where you might get brief sightings at the top of a tree instead we had extended ones of a pair at head height – a perfect end to the morning’s adventures.


Shining Honeycreeper – Luke Tiller

For lunch we headed to an incredible feeder setup on an American expat’s veranda. Here we enjoyed incredible views and photography opportunities with an incredible diversity of feeder species. Of course there were hummingbirds, but there was much more to enjoy too. Of the hummingbirds the gentle giant Green Hermit is always a showstopper, but all the rest put on a great show too with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer the other new species for the stop. Not to be outdone were honeycreepers, with killer views of a stunning trio garnered: Green, Red-legged and Shiny.

On the rice/fruit feeders were a different mix of enchanting species including Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Hepatic Tanager and Crimson-backed Tanager as well as the ever cute Bananaquit. After picking off a few more species including Spotted Woodcreeper and Tropical Pewee we headed back to Canopy Tower for a slap-up BBQ dinner to celebrate our final evening together.


Black-and-White Owl – Luke Tiller

Day 8

With just a couple of hours of birding possible before we headed to airports or on to further adventures in Panama, we still managed to pick up some great new birds for the trip. Among the mix of morning migrants were Orchard and Baltimore Orioles as well as Tennessee, Bay-breasted and Blackburnian Warblers. More of a relief than anything was finally getting our eyes on the stunning Green Shrike-Vireos we’d been hearing all week. The cap to a wonderful tour however had to be the uncommon sighting of a stunning Semiplumbeous Hawk perched atop the forest canopy. A special bird to cap a special week in Panama.

You can see a few more photos and some video from this year’s tour in my Flickr album (here) and some more video on Youtube (here).  To join me for the 2020 version of this fantastic tour visit the High Lonesome BirdTours page (here).

Nome Tour with High Lonesome

25 09 2019




Group at the Safety Sound Roadhouse


Day 1

The saying “There’s no place like Nome” certainly lives up to its billing! Though Nome’s an incredible setting both scenically and for wildlife it’s also the kind of town that looks like it might be the perfect setting for a David Lynch movie.

High Lonesome BirdTour’s second Nome/Seward Peninsula tour of the season kicked off with a minor Alaskan hiccup when we realized that co-leader Dave Krueper and many of our tour participants were not going to be able to leave Gambell in time to join us for the first half day of the tour (at least) due to fog creating impossible flying conditions. Cancelled flights perhaps created an even more manic situation than usual in the arrival hall at Nome Airport, a place known for its slightly random deplaning. After sifting through all the arriving luggage and passengers we finally assembled our group of newcomers from Anchorage at the airport, headed for a quick lunch and decamped to the hotel to check in and drop bags.

We now had an afternoon for exploring a handful of local hotspots. The first stop for almost any birder arriving from Nome is the hallowed Nome River Bridge. This year the Nome River mouth found itself home to a good number of Aleutian Terns and we were happy to get both great looks and good numbers of this highly prized, beautiful and mysterious Alaskan specialty. It was also nice to be able to compare them to passing Arctic Terns too.


Aleutian Tern – Luke Tiller

Our next stop was at Hastings Creek, where we enjoyed uncovering an American Pipit nest as well as working our way through redpoll identification to add both Hoary and Common Redpoll to our growing checklist. Our highlight however had to be finding a stunning pair of charismatic Eastern Yellow Wagtails, whose breeding range bleeds into Alaska from eastern Asia. The rest of the afternoon was taken up with a run out towards Safety Sound to see both the lay of the land and the birds commonly found here in Nome.

With people tired from a long day traveling we headed to the hotel before heading to the weird but wonderful Milano’s Pizza. The restaurant boasts not just good pizza but also tasty Korean food as well as everything from sushi to burgers. It’s something of a Nome institution that was uncovered in the early years of High Lonesome’s adventures up here.


Rock Ptarmigan – Luke Tiller

Day 2

There are essentially three roads out of town in Nome, so High Lonesome’s tour puts aside a day to explore each and then adds a couple of half days for further exploration and cleanup. We started off our second day heading out of town on the Teller Highway. Our first stop was a brief one just outside of town where we picked up many of the common passerines to be found here including a nice mix of warblers: Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Yellow and Northern Waterthrush as well as a couple of goodies like Gray-cheeked Thrush and American Tree Sparrow.

Rolling along the Teller Highway we picked off a variety of desirable but common species like Willow Ptarmigan, Red-throated Loon and Long-tailed Jaeger – stopping where sightings provided good viewing and photographic opportunities. A highlight drive by sighting on a desolate portion of tundra was another Eastern Yellow Wagtail, a species that can sometimes be much harder to find in Nome. We were also enjoying the incredible scenery where snow encrusted tundra was rapidly being covered by a beautiful matting of greenery and wildflowers.

Around mid-morning we arrived at one of my favorite spots along the Teller Road and were greeted by an amazing herd of Muskox. We’d also run into a fog bank and so these incredible prehistoric looking creatures were suddenly swept up in a dense blanket of fog: a pretty dramatic apparition. Of course, the rolling mist wasn’t making the birding conditions too favorable. Every now and then one of our avian targets would appear from out of the gloom, giving us tantalizing views, before disappearing back into the tendrils of the smog. The whole scene reminding me of something out of the Hound of the Baskervilles.


Rock Ptarmigan (female) – Luke Tiller

With visibility down to about 30 feet birding was a little more challenging than usual. After hearing the incredibly beautiful trilling of a Bluethroat for about 15 minutes, and only seeing the hazy silhouette of this bird skylarking into the frosty Alaskan sky, we eventually garnered good looks at this most garish of Alaskan passerines on the ground.

Thankfully as the mist slowly began to thin, other species that we could initially only hear began to reveal themselves. The real highlight of a visit to Nome is not just seeing rare and uncommon birds, but also seeing common species doing uncommon things. As someone used to seeing most of their shorebirds loafing on a sandbar or mudflat in drab non-breeding plumage it’s a real treat to see them in their breeding finery and watch their exuberant displays on their nesting grounds. Here we uncovered a bevy of beautiful shorebird species including American Golden and Pacific Golden Plovers as well as Red Knots and what was probably the highlight of the day: Rock Sandpiper.

After disappointing views of drab female Northern Wheatear we were treated to incredible views and photographic opportunities with a spectacular Rock Ptarmigan, in a bed of pretty wildflowers, before rounding out our trip with a sweep of all the expected pluvialis plovers when we picked up spanking silver and black Black-bellied Plovers at Woolley Lagoon.

We had just enough time to have a brief stop to stop and smell the roses (wildflowers) before we made our way back to town to connect with the participants that had finally escaped from Gambell and head for our first dinner as a group.


Bristle-thighed Curlew – Luke Tiller

Day 3

With the full group all assembled we set off on our day along the Kougarok Road with expectations of an audience with one of Alaska’s most sought after species: Bristle-thighed Curlew.

Kougarock Road is a perennial favorite, with a great mix of habitats to be found along the 70 mile stretch of road that winds inland towards Coffee Dome and the curlews. Our first stop of the morning was adjacent to the Nome River, here among dense willow brush we picked up our first highly prized specialty for the day: Arctic Warbler. This relatively brightly colored old-world warbler reaches the eastern edge of its range here in Alaska. Having to make its way all the way from wintering grounds as far away as Indonesia, it usually arrives late enough in the season that tours that arrive early in June have traditionally had a fair chance of missing it. This year the warblers seemed to be on the move early and we had been lucky enough to have found the joint earliest record for this species in Nome with the previous High Lonesome tour group.

Next stop we stopped at a previously located Gyrfalcon nest. Though there was a Rough-legged Hawk loitering close to the nest we never saw any adults in our half hour vigil, and we had to suffice with views of fluffy Gyrfalcon chicks. I was a little worried by the seeming absence of adults at the nest, but was relieved to hear that they did eventually return later in the day.


Bar-tailed Godwit – Luke Tiller

The route out to Kougarock provided us with both fantastic scenery as well as several good birds which we stopped for as views and photo opportunities dictated. Our next big stop of the day was all the way out at the Kuzitrin River Bridge. Here we were treated to several passerines that are hard to find almost anywhere else in Nome including Say’s Phoebe, Blackpoll Warbler and Rusty Blackbird. The highlight of our stop however were raptors. Initially we picked up a spectacular adult Bald Eagle (a relatively uncommon sight in Nome itself) soaring north of the bridge. While scanning the cerulean blue sky we noticed that the Bald Eagle was joined by a Golden Eagle which in turn was driven off by a territorial pair of Rough-legged Hawks. A pretty spectacular run of raptor sightings!

We arrived at the Coffee Dome late morning and prepped for our hike up to the area to search out the curlews. Before the hike we listened to recordings and perused guides in order to familiarize the group with these sometimes tricky to ID birds.

The hike itself is birding fokelore. The tussocks of tundra that you must hike on being described as being like hiking on greased bowling balls. In reality the hike (if you take the right precautions and stick to the trail) is one that most people can undertake given some time. The hike up hill along a well-worn path can be somewhat wet and a little slick but we took things carefully and slowly allowing the group to meet at the summit off Coffee Dome just in time to be greeted by the plaintive calls of a Bristle-thighed Curlew. The bird of course was calling in flight and dropped down on the tundra a few hundred yards away.

Here began the next part of our curlew adventure. The calling curlew landed on the tundra out of sight of the group and as we slowly closed in on it, we realized that the bird had touched down in proximity to a couple of Whimbrel. This is a difficult ID at the best of times but with the heat haze it was quite a conundrum working out which individual was which until the bird took off calling again. We eventually tracked the bird down where it had landed and it finally gave us great looks and opportunities for photos. The effort involved in tracking the bird down and identify it successfully too surely makes this bird one of the more rewarding lifers to be had in the ABA?

With our target under our belt we happily worked our way home. Stops on route allowed us a chance to enjoy such cool riverine species as Harlequin Duck and Wandering Tattler as well as beating the brush (and Tundra) for Varied Thrush and Snow Bunting respectively. A stop at the Gyrfalcon nest still yielded just the chicks, so we headed home for another Milano’s dinner special.


Willow Ptarmigan – Luke Tiller

Day 4

We kicked off our last full day with a run down the road towards Council, Alaksa. This little community sits at the end of the highway about seventy miles northeast of town.

We started our morning with stops just outside of town where a somewhat foggy seawatch session at Point Nome yielded a half dozen Horned Puffins as the only real highlights. Fog wasn’t to be our friend and the run along the coastline was something of a wash in terms of seawatching. Thankfully things began to break open as we got towards Safety Sound, allowing us to pick up a few nice species including good numbers of Tundra Swans, a Slaty-backed Gull and our first Surfbirds.

Our next birding stop was in the ghost town of Solomon, just past The Last Train to Nowhere (always worth a stop for photo opportunities and to uncover some of the early history of the area). Here we managed to pick up a couple of co-operative Eastern Yellow Wagtails – a highlight for those that missed them while stuck in Gambell.


Willow Ptarmigan (female) – Luke Tiller

The road to Council climbs and crosses some of the highest elevation areas that are easily explored on the roads out of Nome. This means both dramatic and often barren slopes where jaunty Northern Wheatears ply their trade (named in old English for the white arses not cream auriculars). Like a grey, white and rose Rock Wren with a bandit’s mask they ply their trade atop prominent rock outcroppings. Bare slopes are also home to Snow Buntings which are even more brilliant white than usual in their summer alternate plumage.

The landscape changed again as we dropped down towards Council and here and there spruce trees (the first we’d really encountered) started to dot the landscape. As you traverse the road in to town the spruces start to become denser and denser before you finally hit a relatively impenetrable forest just before reaching the Niukluk River. Here we eked out several passerine species. One never knows what you might encounter here at the northern edge of Alaska’s Spruce forest. Today there wasn’t a huge deal to be found, but a pair of obliging Boreal Chickadees were a real treat. Somewhere in the distance an Alder flycatcher sang, and a Pine Grosbeak flew over calling but refused to appear for the group.

On our way home we stopped at Safety Sound Roadhouse. Last checkpoint station on the route of the Iditarod. This bar is about as slap bang in the middle of nowhere as one might ever possibly be and yet the interior looks like one of the best dive bars you might find in any big city in the US. This fun bar was the perfect place to grab a beer and raise a celebratory glass to all the great birds we’d witnessed on our adventures.


Arctic Warbler – Luke Tiller

Day 5

With just a morning left for birding adventures we decided to offer two different morning options based on having two different vans. One set out on the road to Teller with those that had missed out on that experience while mine set out for a trip back down the Kougarock Road to see if we could have any better fortune with Gyrfalcons. Unfortunately, the fog hung in in the valleys along the Nome River and the Gyrfalcon nest stayed stubbornly obscured. We at least had some company while we waited with Arctic Warblers putting on a highlight reel show. Mid-morning we were back at the Aurora Inn in time for breakfast and onwards to new adventures or winging our way home via the Nome Airport.

Laredo Birding Festival 2019

14 02 2019

Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

I just spent a wonderful weekend in Laredo, Texas at the Laredo Birding Festival. Though the town is west of many of the traditionally known spots in the Rio Grande Valley for winter birding and not as well known as McAllen, Harlingen and Mission, Texas it has plenty to offer wintering birders. In fact it’s actually ground zero for a couple of the ABA area’s hardest to find and most sought after species: Morelet’s Seedeater and Red-billed Pigeon. For those two reasons alone it’s always been included in my Rio Grande Valley birding tours and why I have such a high success rate with Red-billed Pigeon when I’m in the valley.


La Posada Hotel, Laredo – Luke Tiller

What to say about the festival:

The central location for everything is a really wonderful Spanish style hotel smack bang in the middle of downtown Laredo. La Posada Hotel is a great location with a couple of restaurants on site, two nice pools and a decent fitness room. The good food options here meant that I spent most of my post field trip and booth time chatting to participants in the hotel bar and restaurant. I thought this mingling of guides and participants, especially at dinner time, really added to the overall experience. (La Posada Hotel website here).

The opening night was held at the Laredo Center for the Arts where there was a show containing 375 wonderful submissions from local amateur artists of all ages. Not only was the art fun, but it added to the sense that the local community were invested in this event and their local environment. Adding to that sense of community were the events taking place at the local American Legion Hall and the number of locals involved as both drivers and guides on all the field trips.


Audubon’s Oriole – Luke Tiller

As well as the spectacular local specialties: Red-Billed Pigeon, Audubon’s Oriole, Muscovy Duck and Morelet’s Seedeater, there were lots of fantastic birds that you associate with Southern Texas and Mesquite brush country: Plain Chachalaca, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Green Jay, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia and Harris’s Hawk among others. In all the three days of field trips totaled about 170 different species, many of them were lifers or ABA species for visiting birders and even I finally had a Muscovy Duck that I felt pretty good about counting in the US.

As well as the great birds we had at the festival, it’s worth noting that the event takes place at the peak time for Mexican vagrants to be showing up along the Rio Grande Valley. Though the Crimson-collared Grosbeaks and Golden-crowned Warblers were a little too far from Laredo to be included in the official field trips, a visit to points south and east in the Valley pre or post festival would make for a nice extension for visiting birders.


White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

One of the real highlights of the weekend for me was how many of the places were sites that I’ve never birded before. This is because the large majority of sites visited on field trips are not usually open to the general public. Festival goers are therefore getting treated to some really unique birding experiences. The number of local ranchers that welcomed birders on to their property during the event was impressive and testament to local relationships forged. It was really nice to see some of those ranchers attend the end of festival banquet and receive a warm round of applause from birders for their willingness to have us visit their properties.

There are plenty of places that are great for birding in the Laredo area that are publicly accessible, but the special access developed by festival organizers really adds to the list of exciting places to visit.  One of my main highlights of the trip, personally, was a visit to Trevino Uribe Rancho, a beautiful building recently restored by the River Pierce Foundation (website here). It’s usually only open the first Sunday of the month, but we had special visiting hours arranged for the tour groups.


Common Ground-Dove

Finally the last thing to address: I was saddened to hear one tour participant say that her non-birding husband had joined her solely because he was worried about the situation on the southern border. Of course they had never been to the Valley before and could only guess what to expect from media reports.

I’ve visited the Valley on many occasions and the towns and cities along the Rio Grande seem no more or less dangerous than any other city in the country. In fact with the almost constant presence of Border Patrol it feels like they are probably safer. In the multiple years I’ve visited the border, often standing just a stone’s throw from Mexico, I’ve never felt unsafe. The Rio Grande Valley is a wonderful part of the United States with a rich history, wonderful wildlife and welcoming people and I hope that its open spaces stay accessible to future generations.


Scoping Laredo’s parakeet roosts – Jeffrey Gordon

So, to summarize: If you haven’t been to the Valley before I would highly recommend this birding festival. If you’ve been before and still need to see Red-billed Pigeon or Morelet’s Seedeater I would highly recommend this birding festival. If you just love the valley and want to see a few places that you’ve never gotten the chance to visit before I would highly recommend this birding festival (can you see where I’m going with this…)

The festival feels like it has a great group of people working hard to make sure it continues to grow and improve and I was proud to be there with ZEISSBirding helping to support their efforts. Next year’s event takes place February 5-8. To find out more about the festival visit their website (here). I hope to see you there!


A Bird From Afar: (Greater) Short-toed Lark.

3 01 2019

Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

This article was originally published in the November 2018 Pasadena Audubon Society Wrentit Magazine. Each month the magazine features a bird species local to Los Angeles County and “A bird from afar”, a species from the world beyond. You can read copies of the Pasadena Audubon Society Wrentit online (here).

A Bird From Afar: (Greater) Short-toed Lark.

As a professional tour guide I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to lots of weird and wonderful places and have seen a multitude of incredible birds, which makes picking a favorite from among them to illustrate “A Bird From Afar” particularly challenging.

This September I was excited to be invited, as part of a small group of raptor experts, to be part of the Batumi Raptor Festival in Georgia. When you mention that you are traveling to Georgia, most American minds tend to immediately envisage Atlanta rather than the shoreline of the Black Sea, which is where I was heading.


Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

As an introduction, Georgia is a small country at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Georgians are renowned for their fantastic food (stews, tandoor oven cooked meat, cheese, delicious bread and amazing cheese stuffed bread!) as well as their wonderful hospitality. This hospitality seemed to mainly involve us regularly being offered more wine and chacha (the local firewater) than would fell a bear, and that was just during lunchtime.

Batumi is a well-known hotspot for bird migration, with the adjacent Black Sea creating a formidable barrier for migrant birds of all kinds (you could fit all the Great Lakes into it two times over). The hawkwatch is one of maybe only five counts in the world where one might hope to encounter over a million hawks over the season, and as a raptor fan it’s a place that I have dreamed of visiting for many years.

There were many beautiful birds I could pick to highlight this wonderful trip, from decadently plumaged Golden Orioles and European Bee-eaters, to impressive and beautiful raptors like the Booted Eagle. The bird I plumped for, however, might be one of the least glamorous of all the birds we saw: a “little brown job” called the (Greater) Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla. These birds breed from North Africa through to Mongolia and winter in the Middle East south to Chad and Sudan. The species is gregarious in nature, usually in small flocks, though flocks may contain many thousands of individuals as they gather to migrate to wintering grounds.


Short-toed Lark – Luke Tiller

One morning, as we sat at the raptor watch site above the Village of Sakhalvasho, a single Short-toed Lark came winging in from the Black Sea and dropped in exhausted among the gathered hawkwatchers. It sat quietly for a while, either too tired to move, terrified by the hordes of gathered humans or perhaps just impressed to be greeted on its arrival in Georgia by Bill Clark and Klaus Malling Olsen.

After a moment or two of assessing the situation it seemed to cotton on that these lumbering bipedal creatures wished it no harm and was soon wandering the lawn pecking at the ground in search of some tasty seed or insect morsel. After half an hour of feeding, while becoming perhaps the most photographed Greater Short-toed Lark in history, it took off again into the skies of Georgia looking no doubt for a few friends and a safe place to spend the next day or two planning its next migratory adventure.

It was amazing to have such a close encounter with this individual bird and I felt honored to have been able to spend a little time in its company. Touched by this one little bird, it was hard not to reflect on where it would end up next and how one might help contribute to keeping our shared planet one that will continue to sustain that bird and its brethren in forthcoming years.

Batumi Georgia: Raptorpalooza

10 12 2018

Happy Hawkwatchers – Luke Tiller

When you tell most Americans that you are going to Georgia they don’t tend to imagine that your journey is going to take you via Istanbul. My Georgia trip however was to the country that is nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, not the state that’s now famous for Donald Glover and voter suppression.

The Black Sea is two times larger than all of the US’s Great Lakes combined and as such creates an impressive barrier for migrating birds, especially raptors. The area came to raptor aficionados’ attention when a group of birders from Belgium and the Netherlands set up a count of migrating raptors in this bottleneck in 2008. It quickly became obvious that this count would qualify as one of just a handful of hallowed “million bird counts” that can be found across the globe, where one might hope to encounter over one million raptors over the season of the watch. This number put the count in the rarified company of Veracruz, Mexico, Cerro Ancon, Panama and Eilat, Israel and on the bucket list of many raptor fans.


Raptors in the Mist – Luke Tiller

As a hawkwatching fan, Batumi had been on my radar almost from the start and having a mother who had traveled extensively in Eastern Europe I already probably had a better idea of what Georgia would be like than your average Brit or American. In the ex-Soviet Union it was known for its beautiful scenery, great food and incredible wines – all additional selling points for me. I was therefore thrilled to be invited as part of an international group of raptor experts to visit the country as part of the Batumi Bird Festival in September this year.

Batumi itself is a resort town with a host of international visitors and hotels to accommodate them, ours had a really nice pool and its own little stretch of private beach which provided a nice little swath of habitat for morning birding. The birding in town reminded me a little of birding New York City or even Cape May, where little patches of shoreline habitat provided safety and comfort for migrating birds. The hotel grounds’ somewhat manicured gardens and adjacent beach turned up such beauties as Eurasian Hoopoe, Isabelline Wheatear, Rose-coloured Starling, Eurasian Wryneck and European Nightjar! Also, as with coastal New Jersey, Common Dolphin, Harbor Porpoise and Bottlenose Dolphin could all be found frolicking offshore.


Eurasian Wryneck – Luke Tiller

Unlike Cape May, the hawkwatch sites were outside town up in the foothills of the local mountains. Here one had fantastic views of the Black Sea below and the surrounding foothills of the Lesser Caucasus. At the watch sites the locals had embraced visiting birders: at one a café had been set up by an entrepreneurial Georgian which served cold beers and delicious food and at the other the local kids swung by with a bucket of cold sodas just at the height of the midday heat. The café and beer situation something more US hawkwatch sites need to encourage in my opinion!

Though the beers were a highlight, the passing raptors were pretty nice too: the flights included lots of Honey Buzzards and Black Kites as well as a nice mix of other species including Levant Sparrowhawk, Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier and Booted Eagle. While watching raptors we were serenaded by the lovely calls of passing European Bee-eaters (listen here) and if the migration slowed there was plenty else to enjoy. Local avian highlights at the watch included Rock Bunting, Mountain Chiffchaff and the stunning Black Woodpecker but there were butterflies, dragonflies and herps to enjoy as well.

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Western Marsh Harrier – Luke Tiller

Being a group of raptor fans, it was hard to draw us away from the hawkwatch, but Batumi has much more to offer than good numbers and great selection of passing raptors. One of the local specialties, the rather adorable Kruper’s Nuthatch, seemed easiest to find at the Botanical Garden in town, along with a stunning collection of mixed migrants that included trees full of Golden Orioles and Spotted Flycatchers. Other local birding hotspots include Mtirala National Park, where one can find seven species of Woodpecker and White-throated Dipper and a variety of localized herps and plants, if you are really lucky you might even stumble upon a Brown Bear!

The shoreline of the Black Sea is dotted with migrant traps large and small. Birding gems among these included the beaches around Poti, where we uncovered a great mix of gulls, terns and shorebirds highlighted by Caspian Plover, White-tailed Eagle, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Little Gull and Little Tern. Another shoreline hotspot was the Chorokhi Delta (literally a stone’s throw from the Turkish border) which yielded over a dozen species of raptors including such goodies as Lesser Spotted Eagle and Short-toed Snake-Eagle. Here, among the dizzying array of old-world warblers were nice ones like Savi’s, Barred and Booted Warblers. Slightly more gaudy species included Citrine Wagtail, European Roller and Common Kingfisher.


Caspian Plover – Luke Tiller

The weather in Batumi was pretty fantastic too, and perfect for this Southern Californian: 70-80 degrees, but always with the chance of a nice shower or two thrown in for good measure. It was certainly enjoyable to pop down to the pool at the end of a day’s birding and have a refreshing swim. The food lived up to expectation, with great stews, salads, cheese, breads, tandoor oven cooked meat and cheese-stuffed bread!!! all washed down with as much wine and Chacha (the local firewater) as one could possibly hope to consume.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip to this amazing little country on the Black Sea, and writing the report reminds me of how eager I am to get back. The interior of the country promises a wealth of other exciting birds including Great Rosefinch, Caucasian Black Grouse, Caucasian Snowcock, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Bearded Vulture and more. I’m hoping my next visit there will take in those special birds too. If you’d like to join me in 2019 for this adventure with European raptors, drop me a line. More on the Batumi Raptor Count on their website (here).

Panama Migration Spectacular Tour 2018

26 11 2018

Blue-throated Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Day one

We started our tour with pickups at the hotel for those that had arrived the night before the official tour start. I had arrived early morning of the tour on a red eye, as had one other participant who was already winging their way to Canopy Tower.

We arrived around mid-morning and after dropping bags, and grabbing some refreshments, we convened on the roof of the Canopy Tower to enjoy our initial views of the surrounding Soberania National Park, the Panama Canal and our first few birds of our week’s adventure. The day’s hawk flight was already underway, and our groups early arriving participant had already been treated to both Grey-headed and Swallow-tailed Kite!

Though the flight was a little slow, it was a nice pace for a refresher course on raptor ID and we soon had our first Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks of the trip under our belt – the former enjoyed most by the West Coast contingent and the latter by those from the middle of the country and points east. Among the migrants we soon had a couple of juvenile Mississippi Kites to workshop and resident raptors put on a nice show too including such goodies as King Vulture, Zone-tailed and Short-tailed Hawk.

With the flight somewhat lackadaisical we also had time to pop downstairs to check out the hummingbird feeders. Here among the throngs of Blue-chested Hummingbirds and White-vented Plumeleteers were a beautiful Long-billed Hermit as well as a less regular and stunning Violet-bellied Hummingbird.

Before we knew it, lunch was upon us and so we dragged ourselves away from the birds long enough to enjoy our first hearty meal of the trip.

After lunch, while awaiting the remainder of our group, we took a stroll down the entrance road to the Canopy Tower. Here we came upon our first little flocks of mixed passerines. Which included a couple of Manakins: Blue-crowned and Red-capped as well as our first antbirds: Dusky Antbird and Black-crowned Antshrike. The group working well to get each other on these skulky forest birds.

After that we stumbled on a productive fruiting tree which hosted several jaunty little birds including White-shouldered and Golden-crowned Tanager, Blue Dacnis and Green Honeycreeper. There were also a couple of nice migrants in the mix including Red-eyed Vireo and Chestnut-sided Warbler. While a few of the group caught a ride back up to the top of the hill with the final three arrivals from our group, those that walked were lucky enough to have a Great Tinamou stroll across our path. A Tamandua was only seen well by one of the group and a Stripe-throated Hermit only by myself so we had to hope for better views of that later in the tour.

We finished our day with an introduction to the Tower from our guide to the week Carlos Bethancourt and another fine dinner of Panamanian comfort food.


Red-legged Honeycreeper

Day two

We met bright and early on the deck of Canopy Tower to start another day’s adventures in Panama. One of the first birds of the tour was perhaps one of the least expected, a wayward Brown Booby careening out of the mist as it headed for the Panama Canal and hopefully back out to sea. This was just the second ever sighting for Canopy Tower and the first one in eBird it appears.

Early mornings at the tower can be great for forest-falcons though they are certainly much easier to hear than to see. Though we could hear both Slaty-backed and Barred, the Barred felt close enough to see and at least one or two of us thought we had the shadow of the bird pass through the forest below us.

As well as the skulkers, there were nice canopy denizens to be enjoyed around the tower including Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher and Green Shrike-Vireo (a real crowd pleaser). By mid-morning the migrant hawks were on the move and we had a nice little collection of local raptors up too. Highlights included a distant, but readily identifiable, White Hawk, three King Vultures and a Hook-billed Kite.

As we were settling in for lunch, we realized that there was a sudden push of raptors on the move including some thousands of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks as well as numbers of Turkey Vultures too. We ran to the roof to catch some of the crazy push, but with thunderstorms closing in we decided the more sensible option would be to watch from the windows of the dining room. Here we watched as hundreds of swirling raptors filled the nearby valleys trying to continue their journey before mainly succumbing to the weight of the rainstorm and dropping in to the forest around us. An incredible and memorable raptor migration spectacle to rival any I had witnessed before.

With rain still coming down post lunch, Carlos decided to take us for a quick run down to the Canopy B&B in Gamboa so that we could at least watch some feeders from a protected spot. It turned out to be a fantastic idea and we soon had a nice mix of birds attending the bananas. The feeders were soon a cacophony of color including such brilliant birds as Red-legged Honeycreeper, Crimson-backed and Golden-hooded Tanagers as well as some greedy Orange-chinned Parakeets. The trees around the feeders also hosted a nice mix of birds including the rather nicely renamed Mistletoe Tyrannulet.

As we wheeled out of town the weather had eased enough to allow just a quick stop at Ammo Ponds. Here among the usual waders: Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Purple Gallinule and Wattled Jacana we picked up a couple of nice additional species including Yellow-tailed Oriole, Panama Flycatcher and a host of perched swallows including nice looks at a group of Mangrove Swallows.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Day three

As the gringo guide on the tour it’s always nice to be able to add something to an itinerary and today was my turn to add something a little different to last year in the shape of a visit to Finca Bayano. I’d done a little research following last years tour and this wetland complex looked promising for some open country species of birds and raptors not likely in other places.

We hadn’t even arrived at El Jagua before we managed to pick up a couple of new birds for the trip. I’m not sure everyone was as thrilled as I was to get House Sparrow on the list, but they all count. More exciting admittedly though was a quick bathroom stop that yielded a few open country species, almost certainly highlighted by a dozen or so splendid Fork-tailed Flycatchers.

Finca Bayano turned out to be a great spot and Carlos quickly found us a host of new birds for the tour, many ones that we were not to see at other sites. Just along the initial stretch of the entrance road we added Striped Cuckoo, and a couple of dazzling new hummingbirds: Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Black-throated Mango. The entrance road also produced a couple of nice new raptors including a couple of White-tailed Kites, but more importantly a stunning pair of often hard to find Pearl Kites. The Pearl Kites putting on quite the show as they were engrossed in a lizard that one of them had caught.

As well as the local hawks there were a bunch of migrant raptors starting to pick up from the surrounding forest: Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures. As the kettles began to form local birds joined in the fun and we soon had Roadside Hawk and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture joining the throng. The open expanses of wetlands here provided a great setting for watching migrating raptors and as we birded, so a stream of thousands of migrant raptors passed overhead.

The wetlands also hosted a wealth of great water birds too. As well as a host of common egrets and herons we also added a couple of less common ones including Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Cocoi Heron. There were interesting land birds to be found here too including jaunty little Pied Water-Tyrants and foraging Gray Kingbirds. “Rarest” of all though was a Wilson’s Snipe that we managed to pick up in flight over the wetlands, a new bird for me in Panama.

This open country spot also hosted a collection of cool falcons including Crested and Yellow-headed Caracara, but most excitingly a pair of Laughing Falcons that were perched above the road on the way out. Probably the highlight of the visit though personally were the great looks we had at several Savanna Hawks. This is a large, beautifully colored raptor that is always a crowd pleaser. Not to be completely outdone though were both a Great Black Hawk and a Grey-lined Hawk that were also fairly accommodating.

A great new stop with a bunch of great new birds and a host of sought-after raptors and it was only just time for lunch! We stopped in downtown which allowed us to have a nice relaxing (and airconditioned) meal, to sit out some of the heat of the day and for a few of us to satiate Starbucks withdrawal symptoms.

After lunch we stopped at a bay that is adjacent to the remains of the original Panama City. The flats were covered with shorebirds and in among the thousands of peeps (both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers) and big groups of dowitchers (almost all Short-billed) we managed to eke out a nice mix of about another dozen species of shorebird including large numbers of rather spiffy looking Southern Lapwings. Other highlights picked out on the flats included both Black and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, our only White Ibis and a rare (but regular) Lesser Black-backed Gull. Just as I thought we were going to have to leave without one, a distinctive “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler finally put in an appearance and we picked up some Saffron Finches on a roadside verge.


Black Hawk-Eagle – Luke Tiller

Day four

We started our day back in the city at Parque Natural Metropolitano. This large city park hosts several nice species that are hard to find in other parts of the canal zone and is always a great place to visit. As well as the resident species we had a nice mix of migrants and species more familiar back home including Dusky-capped, Acadian and Great-crested Flycatchers as well as a smattering of warblers: Blackburnian, Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided.

Again my luck with actually seeing Rosy Thrush-Tanager was as lousy as previous visits, but we did have incredible views of Orange-billed Sparrow that made up for it. Other highlight birds here included great views of gorgeous Crimson-crested Woodpecker, cute little Bat Falcons, garrulous but surprisingly difficult to see Black-chested Jays and the ever-adorable Lance-tailed Manakin! There were also a host of pretty butterflies and a show stealing group of Howler Monkeys as well as a poseur Agouti.

After lunch we ventured out to Summit Ponds. Just a short ride from Canopy Tower, this spot turned out to be a great choice for a somewhat overcast afternoon. Upon arrival we almost immediately managed to independently find two highly prized Boat-billed Herons. Following that we started to clean up on kingfishers: first Green, then Amazon and finally great looks at the incredibly aptly named American Pygmy Kingfisher!

As well as the water birds there was lots else to enjoy around the pond including nice looks at a pleasing Prothonotary Warbler, close encounters with a Lesser Kiskadee and great views of Southern Rough-winged Swallows. The swallows were both viewed in flight over the ponds and perched in snags around it, allowing us close study of both their pale rumps and rufous faces.

Wandering away from the group a little I stumbled upon an active group of mixed birds taking advantage of some fruiting trees. Here an incredible mix of local species and migrants chowed down on an abundance of fruit. These included a host of common tanagers: Crimson-backed, Golden-hooded, White-shouldered as well as manakins, euphonias, vireos migrant warblers and more. The hubbub of activity didn’t just attract my attention and we were amazed when a young Black Hawk-Eagle flew in just above us to check out the chattering flock. We were treated to amazing and extended views of this great bird before it disappeared back into the enveloping forest.

Even following that amazing encounter we weren’t done. Just taking the 100-yard walk back to the van we added such delights as Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Yellow-backed Oriole and perhaps most unexpectedly a cooperative Long-billed Starthroat which sat patiently enough to allow us prolonged scope views. Another fantastic end to a wonderful day birding.


Chestnut-headed Oropendela – Luke Tiller

Day five

We started our day venturing out towards the world-famous Pipeline Road. Though built to maintain a never activated pipeline that was constructed to allow oil transfer between The Caribbean and the Pacific during WW2, the road now acts solely as one of the most productive birding sites anywhere in the world.

After crossing the sparkly new bridge to Gamboa, our first port of call was the excellent Ammo Ponds where we were (this) close to actually seeing White-throated Crake (we could see rustling rushes but not the bird). From there we made our way to the entrance of the road picking up a few nice species along the way including White-bellied Antbird, Golden-collared Manakin as well as both Pied and White-necked Puffbird (two ends of the puffbird size scale). We also stumbled upon our first little mixed flock of antbirds too, which included a personal favorite or two: Spotted Antbird and a female Dot-winged Antwren.

Our journey down the road included a number of nice birds including Chestnut-headed Oropedela, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant and Yellow-rumped Cacique. One particular highlight was stumbling upon a mixed flock that included a hard to find Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher (about five sightings on Pipeline this year) and finding a Great Potoo perched up in a favored tree.

After enjoying our lunch among the hummingbirds, Song Wrens, Gray-headed Tanagers and White-faced Capuchins at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, the group ascended the canopy tower there for some more incredible birding. Highlights here included magnificent Blue Cotingas, uncommon and desirable Moustached Antwrens and a dazzling Masked Tityra. In all we had gathered well over 100 species along the road, a memorable visit to one of the world’s premier birding spots.


Crowned Woodnymph – Luke Tiller

Day six

We spent the whole of our fifth day at Cerro Azul. This little community in the foothills east of Panama City allows one to reach some nice forests at higher elevation without traveling too far from Canopy Tower. A change in elevations in the tropics generally mean a mix of different species, especially tanagers and hummingbirds. Our first stop in Cerro allowed our first encounters with jaw-dropping Bay-headed Tanager and not to be outdone a nice little group of “Black-backed” Lesser Goldfinch.

Closely related to the goldfinches are euphonias and our next little pull out provided a nice little mix of them. As well as the ubiquitous Thick-billed, we also added Fulvous-vented, White-vented and Tawny-capped to our growing trip list. Again, everyone apart from me missed the Stripe-throated Hermit, but we were lucky enough to get views of the almost endemic Violet-capped Hummingbird.

Though we were digging out a few quality species like Emerald Tanager and White-ruffed Manakin, the misty and drizzly weather was making it tough work. We therefore decided to cut our losses a little and head for an early lunch at the “Hummingbird House”.

Thanks to he generosity of a couple of expats that live in town we spent our lunchtime reveling in watching a host of well attended hummingbird feeders. As well as species we’d already enjoyed there were both huge numbers of and a great variety of new hummingbird species, from the giant Green Hermit to the tiny Violet-bellied Hummingbird. Other hummer highlights here included Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird. Not to be outdone by the hummingbirds, the honeycreepers were putting on a good show with a constant tooing and froing of stunning Shining Honeycreepers as well as their Green and Red-legged brethren. Add to that mix Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Hepatic Tanager and Bananaquit and you had a variety and number of birds to keep everyone entertained. A great way to end our trip to Cerro Azul.


Common Potoo – Luke Tiller

Day seven

Our last full day together started with Alex as our guide as Carlos had to attend to a couple of other things. Though the plan had been to aim for the Gamboa, I thought it worth perhaps a quick stop at Pipeline Road for a couple of species we had missed yesterday. Of course, picking up missed species is always going to be a long shot, but we were soon finding a few new species for the trip including a couple of expected species that were inexplicably missing: Rufous Motmot and Gray-headed Chachalaca.

Alex was finding a number of great birds for us and the group finally all had good looks at Greater Tinamou and Stripe-throated Hermit. A couple of other seen but not heard species gave themselves up further down the road when a mixed flock yielded both Cinnamon Woodpecker and Purple-throated Fruitcrow (which were obliging enough to fly in to my whistled response). The only uncooperative bird was an uncommon Scaly-throated Leaftosser that vocalized regularly but refused to be viewed.

With that nice little mix of birds at Pipeline we moved back on schedule with a stop in Gamboa along the river. Here the birding highlights came thick and fast including an incredibly cooperative Great Black Hawk and a new raptor for the trip: Snail Kite, a bird that has expanded its range rapidly in the last twenty years to exploit the introduced Large Apple Snails that have arrived in Lake Gatun and surrounding waterways.

Nice little mixed groups of passerines also had us enthralled here which included new species like the stunning Flame-rumped Tanager and looks at previously unsighted birds like Barred Antshrike. Highlights of the mixed flock action though had to be a group of roving warblers and vireos which had hidden amid the mix a gorgeous Golden-winged Warbler and an eye-catching White-winged Becard.

Our final treat in Gamboa was a Common Potoo posed cryptically in a known roosting spot and a loafing Capybara taking in the scenery as we headed back to the main road. A suitably superb end to fantastic mornings birding.

After reconnecting with Carlos at lunchtime we traded one of the wonders of the natural world (Pipeline Road) for one of the man-made wonders of the world, The Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks boasts a great museum covering the history of the construction of the canal and a viewing platform that boasts not just superb views of this incredible feat of engineering (including the passing boats) but also a good vantage point for observing local wildlife. Initial highlights included both birds: American Kestrel and Magnificent Frigatebird as well as mammals: Crab-eating Raccoons and White-tailed Deer.

As we were waiting for a boat to arrive and pass through the locks, Carlos and I started to pick up on a huge movement of migrating raptors out over Panama City. The flight was initially distant but obviously incredibly large. As the flight continued and developed it started to drift our way and soon a significant part of the flight was directly adjacent to the locks, proving great looks at passing Swainson’s Hawks of all shades and a huge number of Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures. Mixed in among the migrants were a handful of Mississippi Kites, a Short-tailed Hawk, a Peregrine Falcon and some Ospreys. There were a few passing swallows and a Common Nighthawk too. After the incredible day of migration the year before, it was hard to believe that this year’s tour could have rivaled that great day and yet here we were again watching hundreds of thousands of passing raptors. A fittingly incredible end for a tour aimed at witnessing the unbelievable spectacle of migration through the wonderful country that is Panama.

We ended our last full day together with a brilliant barbecue in the courtyard of Canopy Tower, a fun end to a memorable trip. We said our sad farewells to a few of the group who had early departures the following morning.


Green Honeycreeper – Luke Tiller

Day eight

Though a couple of people were already winging their way to the airport, most of us had enough time to enjoy a final tropical dawn chorus on the deck at Canopy Tower before the group finally had to split up, either on to new adventures in Panama or back home again.

Thanks to all of the participants on this trip for joining me for the adventure and to Carlos and all the Canopy Family staff for a wonderful introduction to this amazing country. In all the group totaled 295 species of birds including 34 species of raptors (Panama Species Checklist 2018). There are a few photos from the tour on my Flickr page (here). If you’d like to join me for an amazing week enjoying the miracle of migration in Panama I’ll be running the tour again with High Lonesome BirdTours in 2019 (details on their website).  I can’t wait to see what next year brings!

Monsoon Madness: Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

27 08 2018

Young Birders Walk – Luke Tiller

Mid-August you will find me winging my way to Tucson for the excellent Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. The event run by Tucson Audubon captures what must rate as some of the premier birding at some of the premier birding locations to be found in the US.

With a base in Tucson, the festival hosts an amazing selection of tours including multi-day events to further afield sites as well as day trips to some of what must be the most famous birding sites in the US: Madera Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, Mt Lemmon etc. As well as usual early morning day trips there are events aimed at nocturnal denizens of The Copper State including insects, arachnids, mammals as well as birds. There are also lectures, live critters and all the other things you might wish for at a birding festival.

I arrived a day or so early to set up the festival, do a little scouting for my trips and just enjoy some great birding. Birding Arizona in August means early starts and early finishes, at least if you don’t want to spend your day hiking around in temperatures that seems to swing between hot, very hot and boiling. Siestas were invented for this kind of weather, so when in Rome…


Lucifer Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I started my Arizona adventures down around the town of Sierra Vista. With a few targets on my list, I started my day driving up Carr Canyon. The nice thing about Carr is that it allows you to drive up to relatively high elevations rather than taking what can be quite strenuous hikes. Driving the road up, the rise in elevation sees a corresponding change in the makeup of bird species encountered from Phainopepla at the bottom, through Hepatic Tanager and Greater Pewee midway to Band-tailed Pigeons toward the top. The road up was as rough as promised (passable slowly in a sedan) but thankfully a little less hair-raising than some had suggested (being terrified of heights I was thankful for that)!

Half way up I ran into Brian and Rob from the Sabrewing Tour crew and we joined forces for some birding focused around the Reef Campsite area. Highlights included Zone-tailed Hawk and Plumbeous Vireo and my main target for the morning Buff-breasted Flycatcher: a particularly localized and charming member of the empidonax flycatcher family.

With temperatures rising I said good by to the Sabrewing crew and headed for some leisurely birding among the feeders of Sierra Vista. First stop was the Ash Canyon B&B. After paying my $10 sugar fund entrance fee I was welcomed to an incredible array of hummingbird feeders. Taking a pew in a nicely shaded section of the garden I quickly racked up a healthy collection of attractive hummingbirds. The feeders here are dominated by numbers of Broad-billed and Anna’s Hummingbirds but in among the throng a couple of local specialties lurk including my main target here: Lucifer Hummingbird. These must rank as one of the more spectacular species to be found in the US though I prefer the slightly more romantic and descriptive alternate common name for the bird: Lucifer Sheartail. Ash Canyon doesn’t just claim hummingbirds aplenty, and other feeders on site attract everything from Mexican Jays to Lesser Goldfinches.

After an hour or so soaking up all that Ash Canyon has to offer I decided to head for a little more relaxing mid-morning birding and photography at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. After laying down my $5 for the sugar fund I hiked up to enjoy the hummingbird feeders on site. Here among good numbers of newly christened Rivoli’s Hummingbird (previously Magnificent) I managed to eventually dig out great views of a much desired Violet-crowned Hummingbird. A little exploring up canyon from Beatty’s lead me to uncover an almost wholly unexpected Rufous-capped Warbler, that hadn’t been reported in over a month. An ABA area bird I had only previously encountered in Panama.


Rufous-capped Warbler – Luke Tiller

Day two of my Southeast Arizona adventures I decided to head up to Mount Lemmon mainly in search of warbler action. Though the west doesn’t promise the variety of warblers one can find in the east it does perhaps boast some of the more outstanding species. I essentially limited most of my birding to the Rose Canyon Lake area (fee area). It always appears to me that the best places to bird in the mountains are those with camp sites and picnic areas. Finding my first Painted Redstart by the bathroom block (see!) I then followed a roving flock of warblers and other passerines for over an hour, picking through to eventually uncover a wealth of great species: Olive, Grace’s, Townsend’s, Hermit, Black-throated Gray and eventually the star prize of Red faced Warbler. Beyond the warblers there was much more to enjoy here including Greater Pewees, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and Bridled Titmice. Even better was that the temperature barely creeped into the high 60’s the whole time I was there, a wonderful relief from the summer sun of CA and AZ.

Heading back towards Tucson I stopped in some likely looking Saguaro rich habitat to pick off a couple of Gilded Flickers and ended my morning’s adventures at Agua Caliente Park. This park boasts a mix of manicured lawns, ponds and palm trees as well as some nice native habitat too. The mix of environments provided for a nice mix of birds which included Harris’s Hawk, Hooded Oriole, Purple Martin, Lucy’s Warbler as well as a huge covey of Gambel’s Quail and a couple of cool lizards.

Day three of my Arizona adventure took me south towards Tubac and Amado. First was a quick jaunt along the De Anza National Historic trail as it meanders down the San Pedro River. Here a myriad of localized flycatchers took advantage of insect hatch outs along the river. Highlights included: impressive and aptly named Thick-billed Kingbird, and mournfully calling Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Even the Tropical Kingbirds, so ubiquitous in points south of the US, take on a more exciting hue north of the Mexican border. Other highpoints included a family of Cooper’s Hawks, a couple of showy Yellow-billed Cuckoos and a couple of Bell’s Vireos that made for interesting comparison with the California “Least” version that I am used to living in Los Angeles.

With the monsoon now providing nice overcast conditions I decided to head to Montosa Canyon to see if I could try my luck at some bird photography. Target species, soon acquired, included a seemingly lonely Five-striped Sparrow and multiple stunning Varied Buntings. As well as the birds the other denizens of the canyon catching my eye included a rarely encountered White-nosed Coati (at least away from a couple of known feeders), several cryptically colored skipper butterflies and a rather stunningly iridescent Western Tiger Beetle!


Varied Bunting – Luke Tiller

On my fourth day I was in actual work mode, leading a tour for the festival at the world-renowned Madera Canyon, with excellent local guide Robert Mesa. First stop of the tour was along the entrance road to the canyon for a couple of special sparrow species Cassin’s and Botteri’s. Though somewhat featureless in plumage both birds make up for their drabness with their jaunty songs and in the case of the Cassin’s their beautiful skylarking display flights.

Next stop on the canyon tour was at the renowned Proctor Road. Here we uncovered another selection of fantastic birds including Rufous-crowned and Rufous-winged Sparrows, both male and female Varied Buntings and most excitingly killer views of a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, one of those species where the name is bigger than the bird itself!

As we ascended into the canyon we began to run into more exciting specialties including a couple of highly prized locals like Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Arizona Woodpecker. With Roberts expertise we soon found ourselves first hearing and then seeing our main target for the day: Elegant Trogon. Though neither individuals were particularly obliging we eventually managed to garner decent looks at both a young bird and then a dazzling adult male bird for the group.

The Zeiss crew returned to Madera that evening to join local guide extraordinaire Ken Blakenship and Bill Thompson III for a nocturnal bird prowl. We kicked off the trip with views of Mexican Whip-poor-will before encountering a couple of heard only species (the bark of an Elf Owl and the distinctive double toots of a “Mountain” Northern Pygmy Owl). We then had incredible views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl with prey item and a pair of Western Screech Owls (all while my camera was safely tucked away in the trunk of my car!!!) August isn’t the easiest time to see nocturnal owls in Arizona, so it was a very successful night. Almost as excitingly we’d managed to run across a huge Arizona Blond Tarantula on our way to meeting the group.


Arizona Blond Tarantula – Luke Tiller

Day five I was lucky to join Bill Thompson III again for a Zeiss sponsored walk at Sweetwater Wetlands with a bunch of young birders from the Tucson area. Zeiss always like to do what we can to support the next generation of birders and as part of our promotion for the festival we had promised to donate a pair of our awesome Terra binoculars to a young birder for every Victory SF that we sold.

The young birders were excellent and knowledgeable about local birds and much more: dragonflies, butterflies etc. so they were really keeping us on our toes. Bill did a great job entertaining the crowd and even enticed a Brazilian family to tag along with us for the morning. I think we managed to give them a nice introduction to birding with highlights including a brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher,  a flyby Peregrine Falcon, which came in and practically strafed our group, and a very cooperative Barn Owl that allowed us incredible close views and digiscoped photos. All the kids were very respectful of the sleepy nocturnal predator, making sure we didn’t disturb him from his mid-morning snooze. A fun walk and nice to see such an informed and, more importantly, enthusiastic group of young birders.

The banquet that evening boasted more hilarious entertainment from Bill. As part of the Zeiss Team that sponsored the event I got to share the table with the Mayor of Tucson. It was really great to see local officials recognizing the importance of birding and nature observation to the local economy.

Though not my seventh day, I did find myself resting on Sunday. I was finally exhausted by all the incredible birds and birding opportunities here. As I swung out of town after the show I had time for one last birding stop just outside of Phoenix to add a handful of introduced but incredibly beautiful Rosy-faced Lovebirds to my ABA list. A hot end to a great trip!


Rosy-faced Lovebirds – Luke Tiller

If you haven’t been before I’d highly recommend the festival. Great trips, great local leaders all at some of the countries most exciting birding hotspots. The dates are already up for the 2019 Festival: August 7-11, put them in your diary now and make sure to pop over to say hello to me on the Zeiss Booth. The festival website can be found (here) and a collection of photos from my time in AZ can be found on my Flickr page (click link here).