My new website – Birding Los Angeles and Beyond

20 09 2021
Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Though I will occasionally heading here to post the odd blog piece and perhaps some trip reports from tours, I am super excited to launch my new guiding website Birding Los Angeles and Beyond. The website can be found (here). I hope you think it looks as fresh as I do. Feel free to leave me a comment on the feedback form on the new site using the contact page.

Vina Spizellas

1 02 2021
Brewer’s Sparrow (background) and Clay-colored Sparrow (foreground) – Luke Tiller

It was nice to run into three different species of spizella sparrows at Vina Vieja today and even nicer to have the two pale lored ones give me nice comparison looks in the same binocular view. I was going to say that I think this is an underappreciated ID challenge, but I think most people know it’s pretty tough.

Anyway a few things quickly jump out at me. The first is the much more obvious overall dingy and drab aspect of the Brewer’s compared to the Clay-colored. Also notable is the overall whiteness of Clay-colored Sparrow both in the ground coloration of the breast and the supercilium and submoustacial. Also notable is the much warmer tones of the auricular area. You’ll also note that the Clay-colored has a very well defined median crown stripe too where the Brewer’s has none (sparrow face topography here).

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Brewer’s Sparrow (background) and Clay-colored Sparrow (foreground) – Luke Tiller

These individual birds struck me as pretty obvious examples thankfully, but these features can often be more intermediate. Things that are less helpful to me are the supposed streakiness of Brewer’s Sparrows napes and the lack of contrast in the face pattern. I find Brewer’s often look quite contrasty on the head. I’m not sure I find bill size that useful either, though all three features are mentioned in field guides.

Anyway, the best way to deal with any tricky ID is to spend time watching them and getting some photos to help confirmations and comparisons. Vina is a often a great spot for this and I’m looking forward to writing the location up for an updated guide to birding sites in the greater Pasadena area which Pasadena Audubon Society are undertaking.

Clay-colored Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Here are a few more spizellas from Vina Vieja and nearby spots over the years (here).

The Best Hummingbird Feeders

10 12 2020
Allen’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

In my mind the best hummingbird feeders on the market are the ones that are easiest to clean. I have two types around my yard:

The first type essentially looks like a flying saucer. It has a bottom half which you fill up with hummingbird water and inevitably a red covered lid to encourage the birds to come feed. They are then held up by central hook which screws into an area which is designed as an ant moat that you can fill with water (personally I’ve never had the issue or filled the moat). Lots of hummingbird feeders have annoying nooks and crannies to try and get in to clean them. These ones you can essentially just run under hot water and wipe clean. The only other cleaning utensil I’ve found important for these is a little brush to stick through the feeder ports and make sure there’s no gunk in there.

My version is made by HummZinger and has a nice feature where the perch makes the hummingbirds sit up higher than the saucer, so they are easier to ID when you’re looking at them from the other side of the feeder. There are lots of similarly designed ones available though. I like the 12-ounce version as I want my feeder to run dry and need refilling rather than sitting around too long with gross old sugar water in it.

HummZinger Hummingbird Feeder – Simple and easy to clean!

The other type of feeder I have is an inverted “bottle” type where the lid becomes the feeding saucer. Again, the big appeal for me is the relatively easy cleaning. The thing I learned through experience with these things is that you don’t want a molded saucer which is difficult to get into, rather you want a two-part saucer (like before) that breaks apart as shown. You also want more of a glass column than a bottle shape as the thinner bottle neck makes the thing almost impossible to get into to clean properly.

Again, you probably want a little brush in order to poke down through the flower ports so that you can check that there’s no gunk building up inside (I guess hummingbird bills are pretty dirty). You can also pop out the little plastic flowers which makes them nice and easy to give a clean. It took me a few purchases to get to the designs I’m happiest with, but I think I’ve found them now in these shapes.

More Birds Brand Feeder – Luke Tiller

There seems to be a lot of advice on what to feed hummingbirds, but I think the best thing is to keep it simple. It’s mind boggling to me how many people have that red dyed stuff. It’s arguably bad for the birds so I don’t use it. Best bet is four parts water to one-part boring old white sugar. I buy the biggest cheapest bag I can from the local supermarket. I don’t boil the water (though some seem to think that it helps keep the water fresher) I just mix it up, shake the water bottle I make it in like a cocktail for a few minutes, and then let it cool in the fridge before pouring into my feeder. In the heat of summer, I want the birds to get through the amount I put out in a single day so it doesn’t go off (rarely an issue) so again I prefer these smallish feeders. In winter it’s OK to have it sitting out for a couple of days.

Feeding birds is mainly for our edification, so it’s important to do it responsibly.

Bring on the hummingbirds!

Rufous Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Oh and here’s the little brush, just because someone asked me about it.

Little Brush – Luke Tiller

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.