Panama Migration Spectacular Tour 2017

2 12 2017
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Palm Tanager – Luke Tiller

Panama, not just a terrible Van Halen track! In November 2014 I had seen reports of a flight of raptors that had blackened skies around Panama City and closed the airport there for a couple of days. In total the flight had been calculated to include an incredible two million birds, all seen from the Cerro Ancon Hawkwatch in downtown. From there the seed of this tour with HMANA had been planted. With some help from Jenn, Carlos, Elba and the crew at Canopy Family that dream became a reality three years later.

With nature and hawkwatching there are no guarantees, but we had put ourselves in the time frame for a potentially interesting trip and with Carlos Bethancourt as our guide I was confident we would have a great week whatever happened.

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Green Honeycreeper – Luke Tiller

Day 1

Our tour started Saturday morning with transfers from the airport, via a couple of hotels, to Canopy Tower. As you make your way through downtown Panama it’s hard to miss the three large and ubiquitous black birds circling constantly over the city: Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture and most excitingly Magnificent Frigatebird! There were a few other interesting birds as we wended our way through city streets including drive by glimpses of Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Wood Stork.

A little over an hour later we arrived at the world-famous Canopy Tower. It’s a fantastic one-of-a-kind lodge converted from an old US military radar installation. We arrived to a warm welcome from Carlos Bethancourt (our trusty guide for the week) and a selection of drinks and snacks. With some of the group arriving a little later in the day, the initial arrivals had a chance to grab some coffee and head to the lodge roof, home of Semaphore Hill Hawkwatch, for the first of many enjoyable hours spent observing birds above the canopy of Soberania National Park.

It didn’t take long before we were picking up our first interesting raptors of the tour in the shape of hunting Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks. Though only found on the extreme edges of the USA, both of these species are at least possible to encounter in the US. There were a couple of non-raptor species around the tower that were more or less familiar to many of our group too including Red-eyed Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Tennessee Warbler and Eastern Wood-Pewee. It was however a novel experience to have Bay-breasted Warbler as the somewhat ever-present warbler species of the trip, dare one call something so pretty a trash bird even jokingly?

The remainder of the group arrived late afternoon from the airport and post introductions we headed out to the rooftop platform to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight. As well as the avian migrants from points north, the wandering flocks of wintering birds also contained many local delights, which included both the ever-present Palm and Plain-colored Tanagers as well as species that merely flitted in and out of our presence at the tower. These roving bird flocks comprised of both the cryptic: Plain Xenops, Olivaceous and Cocoa Woodcreeper as well as the dazzling: Bay-headed Tanager, Blue Dacnis and Green Honeycreeper!

A wonderful evening meal, a couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of Tequila brought in from Mexico by a participant helped cap a nice relaxing introductory day to the Canopy Tower.

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White-whiskered Puffbird – Luke Tiller

Day 2

This morning we awoke to the usual reveille at the Canopy Tower: Mantled Howler Monkey and Great Tinamou. As the sun climbed above the local hills our group could be found drinking in both coffee and the sights and sounds of the forest surrounding us. As the trees lit up around us, so more species from home would appear: Summer Tanager, Chimney Swift and Blackburnian Warbler as would more exotic ones too like Mealy Parrot, Tropical Gnatcatcher and Black-breasted Puffbird.

As the day heated up we picked up our first migrating raptors of the trip, after zero movement the day before thanks to some blocking weather on the Costa Rican border. The inclement weather in Costa Rica seemed to have delayed much of the flight through Panama and so among the expected Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks were proportionally significant groups of Broad-winged Hawks, with even a few adults still in the mix. After breakfast we ventured from our canopy perch down to the base of the lodge tower where we picked up the resident hummingbird species attending their feeders: White-vented Plumeleteer, Blue-chested Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin and a rather stunning Long-billed Hermit.

A hike down the road that leads to the lodge to the main road revealed many new species for the trip including some real crowd pleasers like White-whiskered Puffbird, Red-capped Manakin and Fasciated Antshrike. Before our return for lunch we also added another adorable hummingbird species to our day’s tally: Violet-bellied.

Post lunch we headed for Panama Viejo, which at first appears to be just a somewhat inauspicious parking lot over an expanse of mudflats. The mudflats however are alive with a wealth of shorebirds including the familiar: Western Sandpipers and the less familiar: Southern Lapwings. There was much else to enjoy too including stunning Cocoi Herons out on the flats and around us in the trees more avian treasures including Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Saffron Finch and “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers.

There were also some signs of raptor movement overhead, mainly in the form of large kettles of Turkey Vultures streaming eastwards in the thousands. With the Turkey Vultures we picked up a couple of other migrants including a late juvenile Mississippi Kite and a couple of Peregrine Falcons. Though not migrating, a beautiful Common Black Hawk put in a quick appearance too.

This stop at Panama Viejo must rate among one of my favorite parking lot birding experiences of all time. As well as the birds it was also fun to share our birdwatching experience with the Panamanians visiting the museum and cultural center dedicated to the history of the area. Panama Viejo is the site of the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Luke Tiller

Day 3

Our day started with a Mottled Owl alarm call and coffee on the tower viewing platform. Post breakfast we headed for the world-famous Pipeline Road. This road and the pipeline it was built to provide access to were constructed during World War II but the pipeline never actually went into service. Now it is perhaps one of the premier birding areas in both Panama and the region generally.

First stop was at the Ammo Dump Ponds, a place where explosives were stored by the US Army and that is now an area used to store explosives for construction by the Panama Canal Authority. The little ponds there can be excellent for water loving species and we soon had a host of them including beautiful Rufescent Tiger-Herons (named for the cryptic plumage of the juvenile), Wattled Jacanas and Purple Gallinules. We could hear the rolling rattle calls of White-throated Crake too, but none appeared to particularly want to be seen.

In the trees and brush around the pond there were plenty of other birds to enjoy including an incredibly showy Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Along with Black-striped Sparrow and Variable Seedeater, another show stopper at the ponds was a singing Isthmian Wren. This somewhat localized and recently split wren species performed well for the group as we uncovered more and more new trip birds.

Behind us flowed the river chagres and coursing over it were a steady stream of swallows, including Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Mangrove Swallow and the ubiquitous Gray-breasted Martins. Joining the hirundines in the sky were a couple of highly desired raptors: White Hawk and Snail Kite. These two beauties were morning highlights for our raptor aficionado group.

We had barely arrived at Pipeline Road proper, when Carlos heard the mournful call of a Streak-chested Antpitta. Springing into action, our tour group all worked well together to make sure that all got great looks at this skulky and highly prized denizen of the forest floor. While we were patiently trying to eke out looks at this cryptic bird we also managed to get good looks at an easy to hear but difficult to see Great Tinamou, as one seemingly wandered in to see what all the excitement was about. A furtive forest dwelling twofer right at the entrance of Pipeline Road!

We had hardly made it around the first bend in the road before a mixed flock of species descended upon us. As birds swarm around you it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the action, as different birds appear within the melee. Again, our group worked hard to get everyone on the different birds as they flitted past us.

Antbirds are something of the draw on Pipeline and a bunch of them were passing through our patch of forest: Fasciated Antshrike, Black-crowned Antshrike and a personal favorite Dot-winged Antwren. For every enigmatic antbird, there was a much showier denizen of the forest appearing including Slaty-tailed, Black-tailed and the recently renamed Gartered Trogon. In the end we had walked less than a few hundred yards down the Pipeline Road, so thick was it with birds.

We ended our morning visit with an audience with a Great Potoo, perhaps the most cryptic resident of the local forest, found perched in a somewhat favored spot. All this and it was only just time for lunch!

After a hearty lunch we headed up to the platform at the Canopy Tower where we joined Semaphore Hill hawk counter Katrina Hucks for an outstanding little rush of hawk migration ahead of a storm front. Initially we had spotted a few very distant kettles of pepperspots, but within a few minutes we found ourselves being inundated by Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks as roughly 30,000 drifted northeastwards away from Panama City and over our platform aerie (Hawkcount data here). Among this rush of migrating birds, we picked out a few other desired raptors including a beautiful adult King Vulture and a Semiplumbeous Hawk that was perched atop a tree in the canopy out front of the platform. Having counted relatively large movements of raptors before it was amazing to be overwhelmed by such a compressed mass movement of birds riding ahead of the day’s rain.

We ended our day with another wonderful meal at the Canopy Tower which was accompanied by a spectacular Black-and-White Owl perched out in the forest surrounding the dining room. A magnificent end to another incredible day.

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Vulture and hawk kettle – Luke Tiller

Day 4

With the previous day’s flight of raptors in our mind Carlos and I decided that our plan for the day should revolve around Panama City and our eyes should always be partly watching the skies for raptor movement.

After battling a little Panama City traffic, we started our morning at the Parque Natural Metropolitano near downtown. Here one can find a wealth of dry or pacific slope species including such prized birds as Golden-collared and Lance-tailed Manakin. Again, it didn’t take long to get into a mixed flock of birds and among the species revealed we found everything from the relatively prosaic: Northern Waterthrush and Chestnut-sided Warbler to the highly desired: Rufous-breasted Wren, Red-throated Ant-tanager and Panama Flycatcher. More exploring along the park’s trails also uncovered Red-crowned Ant-tanager and Orange-billed Sparrow. Highlights of our stop also had to include Whooping Motmot, our first Bat Falcon and a mammal in the shape of an adorable Rothschild’s Porcupine!

As we birded, I could tell Carlos’s raptor Spidey-sense was tingling as strongly as mine and we decided to head to look at what was happening with the hawk migration. As soon as we reached some open skies it was obvious what was happening; things were going bananas! Leaving the park, we paused briefly along the roadside at the Marcos A. Gelabert Airport to watch a growing liftoff of vultures that were surely grounded by yesterday’s afternoon rain.

From there Carlos steered our bus towards a downtown city park from which to watch the ever-growing kettles and streams of passing raptors. We arrived at Cinta Costera park just in time for the skies to be filled with raptors, and over the next couple of hours watched as Panama City tallied its second highest single day number of migrant Turkey Vultures of all time: 715,517 in total! Perusing Hawkcount when we got home, this was the just the third largest Turkey Vulture day ever recorded at any hawkwatch anywhere in the world! Hawk people talk reverentially of million bird hawkwatches and yet we had almost just seen that number in one single day!

As the skies filled with raptors, our minds were filled with conquistador descriptions of skies being blackened by birds as they surely witnessed this very same migration hundreds of years prior. Though the flight was somewhat homogenous we reveled in the sheer mind-blowing spectacle. In among the huge numbers of Swainson’s Hawks (134,260) there were good numbers of Broad-winged Hawks (27,646) and a smattering of other species: Mississipi Kites, Peregrines, Ospreys and Wood Storks. Even the seemingly unpromising downtown park around us was providing a bounty of nice birds including a handful seen only here on our trip: Boat-billed Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird and most excitingly, out on the bay, a gorgeous Blue-footed Booby or two!

We spent the next three hours reveling in this incredible spectacle while sharing our experience with park visitors: Panamanians and tourists alike. We even had a brief interview with journalists from a local blog that highlights things to do in Panama. The best part of the morning though was having Rosabel Miro from Panama Audubon join us for an hour or so to meet the group and talk about Cerro Ancon Hawkwatch.

Though hard to tear ourselves away, we headed for lunch downtown before heading off to the Quarry Heights area to enjoy the continuation of the flight. We finally left the continuing stream of birds in order to avoid getting stuck in the post work rush hour traffic. An incredible day that I’m sure will live long in the memories of those that witnessed it! There is some great video of the incredible day shot by one of the participants on youtube (here) and details of course on Hawkcount here!

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Tiny Hawk – Carlos Bethancourt

Day 5

Our fifth day in Panama started with a bang, when pre-breakfast atop the tower we found ourselves face to face with a stunning Tiny Hawk! It seems like Carlos and I have incredible luck together when it comes to discovering difficult to find accipiters (last time we were together we found a very accommodating juvenile Bicolored Hawk) and I was amazed to find myself staring at this remarkable little raptor as it flew in to join us for morning coffee! It stuck around long enough for most of the group to rush upstairs to see it before disappearing off into the park below. A great start to the day!

Post breakfast we found ourselves hotfooting it from the hummingbird feeders at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center (where we had picked up Crowned Woodnymph and for a lucky few Purple-crowned Fairy) out to the entrance of the center. Here we found ant swarm that one of Carlos’s fellow guides had called us about. We spent the next hour or so watching as antbirds and more came in to pick off insects escaping the marauding army ants. Highlights around the swarm including amazingly accommodating Spotted and Bicolored Antbird, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper and a small flock of Gray-headed Tanagers.

Earlier in the morning Carlos had managed to tease both Song Wren and Black-faced Antthrush into view for us. Both are charismatic birds, with one mainly memorable for the way it struts around the forest floor, the other for it’s amazing refrain! Morning had also seen us add trogon number four to our trip list: a stunning male Black-throated Trogon. Before we left the Rainforest Discovery Center, we had just enough time to do a little shopping, have Carlos present the Discovery Center with a donated spotting scope and even pick up another great raptor for the tour: Hook-billed Kite. A wonderful action-packed morning of birds.

After lunch we finally had some rain catch up with us. It was green season, so I had anticipated getting a bit wet at least once on the tour. We’d had a fairly successful stop at Summit Ponds with both Boat-billed Heron and American Pygmy Kingfisher in the bag when Carlos, spotting the enveloping clouds, decided we needed to head for shelter. Unfortunately, our ride to the ponds was in an open top bus and as we hit the road homeward bound the heavens opened. Thus ensued a hilariously rain lashed ride back to the Canopy Tower with much laughter and “gallows” humor from everyone involved.  A little rain wasn’t going to get this great group down!

We ended our day, with the expert help of  one of our participants and a black light, exploring some of the remarkable moths and other nocturnal creatures that call Soberania National Park home (link to amazing moth photos here). An enjoyable end to another great day in Panama.

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Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Day 6

This day saw us heading out early to visit the highlands of Cerro Azul. As we meandered across Panama City, we finally managed to knock House Sparrow off our Panama needs list. A huge relief to everyone involved I’m sure. The Cerro Azul Visitors Center provided for a welcome restroom and coffee break, but also saw us picking up some good birds in the nearby gardens including a bevy of beautiful tanagers: Golden-headed, Crimson-backed and Bay-headed.

Our morning birding basically involved short drives and stops at areas where birds appeared or looked productive for specific species. First up was an appointment with a highly prized Panamanian endemic: Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker. We were trying to work looks at one when a Merlin suddenly came careening through our patch of woods thoroughly spooking this beautiful green woodpecker. As if to compound matters a relatively rare Sharp-shinned Hawk circled the area putting everything else to flight. When we finally re-found the woodpecker, we were treated to an incredibly accommodating views of a male bird right at head height. An unusual but very welcomed situation!

Other opportune stops saw us adding more new species including Streaked Saltator, Yellow-faced Grassquit and a much puzzled over Acadian Flycatcher. It was really fun to work through the identity of this silent little empidonax flycatcher on its winter grounds.

After a little more stop-start driving, we reached an area where we parked in order to go on a little hike. As per usual though our hiking was abruptly halted by a mixed tanager flock. Here we uncovered a different selection of tropical jewels including Speckled, Black-and-yellow and Emerald Tanagers. Highlight personally though was the spiffy looking and obliging Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant that posed for our photos.

Next stop was the appropriately named Hummingbird House. Here a varied arrangement of feeders played host to not only hundreds of hummingbirds, but a wide variety of nectar, rice and fruit eating species. These included many stunning birds that comprised three types of Honeycreeper: Shining, Red-legged and Green. Also chowing down were Thick-billed Euphonia, Hepatic Tanager and a lonely Bananaquit. The hummingbirds were however certainly stars of the show. They included: Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer – a beautiful large hummingbird with bubblegum pink feet, Green Hermit another giant hummingbird with an amazing scimitar like bill, and perhaps most excitingly the near endemic Violet-capped Hummingbird. This array of birds was all enjoyed while devouring a delicious lunch on the porch of our generous hosts.

After the incredible hummingbird experience, we had just a little more time to enjoy a couple more roving flocks and a riverside stop to pick up a couple of Black Phoebes. We also enjoyed watching a few passing raptors soar overhead before setting off for home. A wonderful end to a productive day in the highlands.

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Spotted Antbird – Luke Tiller

Day 7

Sadly our last full day together! As we gathered to head out for one last adventure on the Pipeline Road we were visited in the Canopy Tower parking lot by a couple of beautiful birds: precisely two Cinnamon Woodpeckers and one Green Shrike Vireo. A very nice start to the day’s proceedings.

After a quick stop along the route for a perched raptor, which turned out to be an adult Broad-winged Hawk, we arrived at Pipeline Road. This time we drove in a little way enjoying birds along the road, including nice looks at both Rufous and Whooping Motmots. The open top vehicle proving perfect for laid-back lazy birding.

We finally reached an area where we needed to walk to get any further. As we parked, we picked up the sounds of raucous Black-chested Jays. I wondered aloud whether they were mobbing something or simply jays being jays. With Carlos working the group closer to them we soon had our answer: they were mobbing. Target of the aforementioned mobbing was a stunning juvenile Collared Forest Falcon. Incredibly this had been top of at least one participants wish/hit list for our last day together. Again, in a difficult situation, our trusty group of leaders and participants worked diligently to get everyone on the bird. Though the falcon was moving around constantly, trying to avoid the pursuing corvid harassment squad, and even though we were momentarily distracted by a cool frog everyone finally got to see this secretive forest raptor.

Next on the day’s wish list was White-tailed Trogon. Without much ado, Carlos uncovered one for us: trogon number five for the tour. As we walked the Pipeline Road trail we ran into other desirable new species including a roving flock of Purple-throated Fruitcrows, a couple of tiny and adorable Pied Puffbirds and a quiet and secretive Russet-winged Schiffornis. With lunch beckoning we headed back to our parked vehicle. On the way to the truck we picked up another exciting new raptor: a pair of striking Gray-lined Hawks, a species recently split from the Gray Hawk which is found in southern extremities of the US.

Our tour began to draw to a close with us wishing fond farewells to our guide for the week, Carlos Bethancourt. The group and I then spent a fun afternoon at the amazing Miraflores Locks. While we soaked up the history of this incredible feat of engineering and listened in awe to the descriptions of the boats passing through the locks, we also carefully tallied 41 bird species from the lock observation deck. These included our first Gray-headed Chachalacas of the tour, nice views of a pair of Bat Falcons and perhaps best of all great looks at a Ringed Kingfisher that was pointed out by one of the lock museum staff.

We ended our day with a few cold beverages, another great meal and fond farewells to new friends who were departing early in the morning to catch their flights.

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The Group – Luke Tiller

Day 8

This morning there was just enough time to spend another relaxing morning atop the Canopy Tower enjoying breakfast to the sights and sounds of the jungle before having to wish heartfelt goodbyes to the group. Half of the participants made their way to the airport, while others headed for some further adventures in Panama.

To summarize, we had spent a wonderful week at this one-of-a-kind lodge with a group of likeminded people who had now become friends. We had been lucky enough to witness amazing birds, intriguing flora and fauna and astonishing spectacles. Over the week the group had tallied an impressive 266 species of birds and seen flights that had tallied over one million migrating raptors. An amazing trip and one that I personally can’t wait to do all over again with Carlos at the Canopy Tower next year!

For details on next year’s tour, check my tours page (here). For more photos  from the tour check my Flickr page (here). PDF of bird species checklist from the tour (Panama Migration Spectacular Birds 2017).

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Inaugural PAS Pelagic – September 2017

17 09 2017
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Black Oystercatcher – Luke Tiller

This Saturday (Saturday, 16th) I took off from Dana Point on a pelagic that I had organized for Pasadena Audubon Society. We joined the R/V Sea Explorer on a boat used by The Ocean Institute as part of their educational work. There’s a nice video of the boat in action on Youtube (here).

Of course picking up our boat in Orange County meant that we had a little ride before we crossed the Orange Curtain into Los Angeles County waters. That said I think many of our participants were new enough to pelagic birding that we were more focused on seeing birds than worrying about the imaginary lines that divide our county lists.

Even before leaving the harbor we had a couple of nice sightings in the way of some Black Oystercatchers loafing on the jetty. Then with jumbo bags of  popcorn at the ready we were soon chumming our way out to sea, a steady stream of Heermann’s Gulls and Western Gulls following closely behind us.

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Pink-footed Shearwater – Luke Tiller

Just off shore we were soon surrounded by our first “pelagic” birds, a nice stream of Black-vented Shearwaters. These birds predominantly nest in Baja California, are generally limited to the coastlines of Mexico and California and tend to like nearshore waters. Among them other shearwaters can be found as well and we soon had a couple of Pink-footed following behind the boat too. Later we added a couple of Sooty Shearwaters for our third shearwater species on the day.

As well as the shearwaters, we were soon picking up our first jaegers of the trip too. Pomarines were probably the most numerous and one very accommodating one decided to follow the boat for a while, allowing people to get good looks at both the structure, flight style and plumage of this rather magnificent avian pirate. We soon added Parasitic Jaeger, though the real highlight was picking up a Long-tailed Jaeger to complete our jaeger sweep. It’s currently peak season for Long-tailed Jaeger migration and though this species is the least commonly found jaeger in Southern California we managed to get two in Los Angeles County.

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Pomarine Jaeger – Luke Tiller

There were plenty of other species to look at as we motored along including Elegant, Caspian and Royal Terns. We even had a few non-avian goodies including Mola Mola and flying fish. That was at least until we got to Los Angeles County waters. As we arrived in LA County it’s as if the bird tap was suddenly turned off (or at least to a trickle). Our flock of following gulls disappeared (probably because I took over chumming) and the fishing boats around Catalina seemed not to be drawing much avian attention.

Though sightings slowed considerably, the quality of sightings was good. The next couple of hours included stumbling upon a couple of nice rafts of Common Terns, our only storm-petrel of the day: Black Storm-Petrel, a couple of pretty Sabine’s Gulls and a complete sweep of three jaeger species.

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Craveri’s Murrelet – Luke Tiller

Highlight of the whole trip had to be our luck with alcids. Not only did we manage to find a pretty cooperative Cassin’s Auklet, that sat for a while with us, but we also managed to find a pair of much sought after Craveri’s Murrelets.

Craveri’s Murrelet has a relatively small population and is one of those birds that is both difficult to find and tough to see well. Typical views are unidentifiable ones of their rear ends, as they take off from the water in front of your boat and Sibley even illustrates them as such in his guide. Amazingly the two, perhaps overly full, Craveri’s we found decided to sit on the water in front of us for over five minutes, This allowed for amazing looks, photos and even better amazing listens! I think this was the first time most, if not all on the boat, had ever heard the insect like twittering of these amazing little birds (listen here).

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Craveri’s Murrelets

We ended our day heading back along the Orange County coastline where we ran into more Black-vented Shearwaters and a sizable pod of Common Dolphin. Judging from all the enthusiastic comments from participants I think we need to get another pelagic on the Pasadena Audubon Society schedule ASAP.

One of the best parts of the day was that everyone managed to see pretty much all of the birds that we found. This was testament to our excellent boat captain and the fantastic leaders on the day: David Bell, Tom Benson, Kimball Garrett, Brittany O’Connor and Justyn Stahl. Thanks to everyone for making it a fun day on the water.





Photo Essay – Swainson’s Hawks in Bakersfield

12 09 2017
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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I drove up from Los Angeles to Sonoma for the Sonoma Birding Optics Festival to go talk about optics for ZEISS Birding (blog here). Though I love the incredible diversity of habitat and species in Los Angeles County the one thing it doesn’t have much of is raptor migration.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

The lack of raptors in migration is almost made up for by the incredible winter raptor spectacle that can be found out in the Antelope Valley in winter (see post here), but for an ex-professional hawkwatcher there is nothing that quite competes with watching raptors on migration.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Last Friday I was winging my way north along the somewhat desolate I5 when I spotted some hawks kettling in some Ag fields by the side of the road. I of course got off at the next exit and was excited to find a few Swainson’s Hawks loafing in a field just next to the off ramp.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Though it was almost exactly hot high noon and the heat haze and bright sunlight wasn’t exactly optimal for photography I couldn’t pass up grabbing my camera and getting a few record shots of the moment.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

It’s amazing the individual variation in these beautiful birds and it was nice to be able to study them fairly close up rather than watching them way up in the sky as often happens at a hawkwatch. A few birds even drifted close enough to the roadside for me to capture at least a few different individuals somewhat well with the camera.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

In October I’ll be in Panama for the peak of this species migration through the country. I wonder if I’ll unwittingly connect with any of these birds again. Other highlights of the weekend trip to Sonoma included Black Swifts, Black Rail, Tule Elk and best of all getting to see some old friends at Hawk Hill Hawkwatch.





Los Angeles: Summer in the City?

12 07 2017
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San Gabriel Mountains at dusk – Luke Tiller

Though breeding season everywhere tends to be somewhat slower for birding than most other times of year, there is still plenty to like when it comes to birding in Los Angeles. When it comes to summer birding here it’s hard to beat the San Gabriel Mountains, and not just because the elevation tends to provide a little relief from the warmer temperatures to be found down in the basin.

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White-headed Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Though most people know Los Angeles is in a basin, not many people realize quite how amazing the mountains that surround that basin can be. Less than twenty miles from Downtown, and just about thirty from LAX, one can find oneself seemingly well away from the hubbub of the city. Quickly climbing up in elevation, one can start to find an array of exciting mountain specialties including Bell’s Sparrow, White-headed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and more.

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Northern Pygmy Owl – Luke Tiller

At night the mountains and foothills can come alive with owls and goatsuckers, which when you include rarities, can include up to seven species of owl. As well as the more common species these might include such sought after goodies as Spotted Owl and Flammulated Owl. One owl often more easily found during the day is the tiny, but fierce, Northern Pygmy-Owl. I love pygmy-owls anyway, but the potential for this bird to be split from those Northern Pygmy-Owls found in the Rocky Mountains adds to the interest.

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Black Swift – Luke Tiller

One of North Americas most enigmatic and sought after species can also be found in the Los Angeles area: Black Swift. This highly specialized aerial acrobat breeds in just a handful of spots in Southern California, due to a reliance on waterfall nesting sites in what is a relatively dry region, but at least one pair is relatively accessible from Los Angeles. Every July I take a group out from the local Audubon group to enjoy seeing this neat species.

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Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Perhaps even more elusive and desirable, summer is not the worst time to be looking for Mountain Quail. Though they are a little easier to find earlier in the year when the birds are still vocal, they can be found in the warmer months too. In fact the best photographs I ever captured of these sneaky little quail were in July. This may just be a coincidence, but I suspect it was because the birds were at least somewhat focused on maintaining contact with chicks at the time rather than what I was up to.

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Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Luke Tiller

Though I love migration more than any other time (who doesn’t?), I have to say I’m thankful for all that summer birding in Los Angeles has to offer. It’s always amazing to me that you can escape a population of 19 million people and find yourself alone and surrounded by birds just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Los Angeles.





Southern Texas in Spring

24 04 2017

I spent a fun time in Southern Texas last week with Alex Lamoureax and Wildside Nature Tours. It was a new time of year for me as far as the Rio Grande Valley is concerned and highlighted how great this corner of Texas can be at almost any time of the year. I still have the urge to get here in September to see what it is like when the Broad-winged Hawks are returning south, perhaps next year.

There were many highlights over the week, but if I were to pick just a handful they would be as follows:

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Common Pauraque and chick – Luke Tiller

Finding Common Pauraques with chicks One of my coolest sightings of my last tour to Texas was finding a Pauraque that wasn’t the most photographed Pauraque in the whole of the world. There’s at least one that everyone and their dog knows about, so it’s always good to find your own one. The coolest sighting this year was following up on that bird and discovering that this time it had two chicks snuggled up underneath it. We also saw the well known bird with chicks too. If there was just one good reason to go to Texas in April it would have to be baby Pauraques!

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Botteri’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Exploring Palo Alto Battlefield Whenever I find myself in Texas I like to try and find somewhere new to visit. It feels like a lot of visitors just hit the same old spots over and over again. Thanks to a tip off from a couple of ex locals I decided to check out Palo Alto Battlefield. Not only did it provide some interesting and different habitat to most of the other stops, it also provided some interesting history and a beautifully appointed visitors center. Highlight there was getting to see numerous Botteri’s Sparrows. They aren’t around during winter (at least according to most sources) so they were a new Texas bird for me. Their range is at best spotty between southern Texas and Costa Rica (up to nine subspecies) and so they were a real joy to see. What made the sighting even better was that, unprovoked, one of these usually skulky birds popped up and started singing vociferously, giving the group killer views.

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Broad-winged Hawk – Luke Tiller

Morning raptor liftoff Southern Texas is excellent for a bunch of species that are uncommon or even essentially absent from the rest of the country. Included in this are a couple of raptors. While looking for one of them, Hook-billed Kite, we were able to witness a bunch of raptor migration as hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites and some Swainson’s Hawks lifted off from forests on both sides of the border in order to continue their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. As a hawkwatching fan it was nice to get to see some raptor migration, something one gets a little starved of in Southern California!

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Least Bittern – Luke Tiller

South Padre Island migration It’s amazing what a little coastal habitat can produce in terms of migrant traps on South Padre Island. Even the most rudimentary drip and a couple of trees can produce wonderful migrant species like Painted Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Kentucky Warblers and more. Though we didn’t quite hit the fallout conditions that are possible there, we did get a wonderful mix of mainly southern US migrants. Throw in perhaps the most accommodating Least Bitterns on the planet and some great shorebirds at Boca Chica and you have yourself a pretty great day.

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Red-bordered Metalmark – Luke Tiller

National Butterfly Center The National Butterfly Center is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a little more expensive than most of the sites but the incredible butterflies, great feeders and numbers of great birds always make it worth a stop in my opinion. Last time it was a male Varied Bunting, this time it was killer views of a group of Groove-billed Anis (website here).

You can see some more photos from the trip on my flickr page (here). You can see a collection of Texas photos in another album (here).





Anna’s Hummingbird – Photo Essay

13 04 2017
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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

While birding at Santa Fe Dam the other day I stumbled upon this fairly co-operative Anna’s Hummingbird. I approached it a couple of times for shots. I basically figured that it was somewhat guarding a patch of flowers and that it might be a little more tolerant of approach than usual.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I have what I feel is a pretty decent setup for bird photography: a Canon 7D and the 300mm f4. Rightly or wrongly, I generally still take shots like I used to when I had my old 35mm Praktica as a teenager but will take bursts of shots when it seems appropriate (like when this bird stretched and preened).

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think the main thing about getting good bird photos is getting close to them, whatever lens you have. I think among birders (or maybe even beginner bird photographers) the thought is that a long lens allows you to get great shots from miles away, which in my experience is certainly not the case .

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think being a birder first, you can parlay your bird knowledge into good photography. This means using the field skills you would use to approach a bird to get close for shots, but also understanding how birds are likely to react and how sensitive different species might be, even tailoring that experience to dealing with birds in different circumstances.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

In the end through slow and indirect approach I managed to work my way within about ten feet of this hummingbird. The overcast skies helped to produce a nice picture, as hummingbird gorgets tend to blow out in any direct sunlight. I tried to follow the few little bits of advice I have picked up along the way: shoot with the sun behind you and get to the birds level.

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I was also thinking about the background, but didn’t have much to work with. After taking a couple of shots against a pure sky background (not my preference) I moved a little to try get the hazy gray mountains behind the bird. I’m not sure it made a huge difference? The main thing was to try line up with the bird so that I was catching the flare of the gorget as he faced me. Anyway I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out.





Birding the Kill Bill Superbloom

3 04 2017
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Superbloom at dawn – Luke Tiller

This Sunday David Bell and I ventured out into the wilds of Northeast LA County to check out what was happening with this years superbloom. This year has been an incredible one for wildflowers across the Southwest.  As well as the flowers, I was intrigued as to what might turn up there bird wise. Adding to the potential interest was the fact that Jonathan Feenstra had found what appears to be Los Angeles County’s first record of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in over eighty years just a stones throw away on Edward’s Airforce Base, on a section that isn’t open to the public.

The thing I like about birding with David is that he’s always up for trying somewhere different rather than chasing birds or hitting the same old birding sites. It was for this reason that we found ourselves stopping at dawn amid a sea of yellow desert wildflowers at the Kill Bill Church (more here) in Hi Vista to see what might have stopped off in this one horse town during migration. It actually turned out to be a fairly productive stop with highlights including specialist local breeders like Black-throated Sparrow as well as a couple of out of place migrants including a beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbird.

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Kill Bill Church – JG Klein

We then worked our way north on East 200th Street past the Phacelia Wildlife Sanctuary to explore the very northern edge of the county, stopping only when the road would take us no further. Here at the end of the line, a gate blocked our entrance to Edward’s Airforce Base. It was a surprisingly productive end of the line however with singing Le Conte’s Thrasher (or LeConte’s Thrasher depending on what the AOS decide) and five species of sparrows that included three real beauties: Bell’s, Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrow.

We were soon stumbling on more birds as we worked our way through the Creosote Bush and Joshua Tree covered landscape. In my experience this habitat often seems to be pretty birdless, but today we kept stumbling upon little flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and in among them other birds would appear. Some expected, like the Rock Wrens and Verdins, some much less so like the migrants that seemed to have joined in these little roving flocks: Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and House Wren. It seemed like almost every bird freaked out the local eBird filters however, highlighting how little this area gets birded.

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Black-throated Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Of course usually this area is pretty barren desert, but this year there are plenty of flowers for these birds to enjoy, and looking carefully at my photos from the day, plenty of accompanying bugs. With the superbloom it makes me wonder how the usual desert migrant traps will fair this Spring. With the desert somewhat greener than usual I wonder if those places will be less of a draw for wandering birds or whether the abundance of growth in the desert may somehow end up helping waifs and strays survive and similar or greater numbers will find their way to those weird little desert oases? It will be interesting to find out.

As well as a fairly constant turnover of birds there was much else to enjoy including lots of neat flowers. Almost everywhere you looked was a carpet of yellow flowers mainly formed by millions upon millions of little California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) but there were other pretty ones in among them including the purple Phacelia that the nearby wildlife sanctuary is named for. You can find LA County Parks and Wildlife Refuges using their parks locator tool (here).

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Phacelia sp – Luke Tiller

The flowers were of course attracting insects and one of my main highlights of the day was not only seeing, but also photographing quite well a White-lined Sphinx moth. As well as poking around Hi Vista we also stopped at a couple of other spots that looked like they might hold potential for future exploration, but didn’t come up with anything particularly out of this world species wise.

It was a fun morning of birding and I’m hoping I can sneak out here for a little more before the bloom fades or I have to leave for a mid-April Texas Tour that I will be co-leading for Wildside Nature Tours. There’s still one open space if you are looking for a short but sweet adventure in that incredible part of the world (details here). There are some more photos from the day on my flickr page (here). Thanks to Naresh Satyan and Mickey Long for flower identification.

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California Goldenfields – Luke Tiller

Trip Species Checklist:

American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawk, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Black Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, House Wren, Cactus Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Le Conte’s Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Bell’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow