Anza Borrego – Superbloom Hawkwatching.

27 03 2017
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Desert Sunflowers – Anza Borrego

This Saturday I headed for Anza Borrego for Pasadena Audubon’s annual trip to the hawkwatch there. After a very early morning start I arrived in Borrego Springs for our dawn rendezvous. Our first port of call was the Mesquite woods in town which are usually home to Crissal Thrasher and historically it seems now to Lucy’s Warbler. Though we did find some nice desert denizens including Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Gnatcatcher we struggled to turn up any of the rarer species hoped for here. Still none of the above are very common in LA County so it’s always a treat to see them. The other highlights here were numbers of Western Kingbirds, including groups of migrants passing overhead and a couple of rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch that dropped in next to the group!.

Next stop turned from opportune bathroom break into an intensive birding stop. A stop in town lead us to both a nesting Great Horned Owl and from there we started to find a few interesting species dotted around town including a nesting Costa’s Hummingbird, White-winged and Common Ground Dove. The thing I’ve always loved most about birding is migration because you just never know what you are going to find next and as we walked around the block back to our cars from the owl nest we found ourselves a little flock of migrating passerines. In the mix were a decent number of birds and a mix of species including warblers, vireos and orioles. Highlights were almost certainly the stunning male Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles with runner up prizes going to Wilson’s and Nashville Warblers.

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Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Unfortunately the predicted winds that were forecast for the afternoon kicked up a little earlier than predicted which made both bird and bloom watching a little harder than anticipated. Still, we managed to find a nice couple of fields of flowers out on Di Giorgio Rd and Henderson Canyon Rd and a nice mix of different species out at Old Spring Rd. Though the winds were roaring luck was on our side and I randomly spotted some Swainson’s Hawks coursing out over a field and the group managed to walk out towards them for better looks. It was nice to be able to show people the differences in plumage between adults and juveniles and compare the different morphs too. We also pulled out a Red-tailed Hawk from the group as well.

Next stop was a quick lunch break over at the Tamarisk Grove campground. Here among the throngs of campers and visitors enjoying the wildflower and cactus show we managed to stumble upon a beautiful Long-eared Owl. The bird, though not more than a few feet from a busy parking lot, seemed very relaxed apart from when an Anna’s Hummingbird came buzzing around his head at which point he immediately opened his bright yellow eyes and stared angrily at this buzzing interloper.

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Long-eared Owl – Luke Tiller

The last portion of our day we hiked out to Yaqui Wells. A mile and a half round trip from Tamarisk Grove campground that takes you through a mix of beautiful cactus dotted habitat before it eventually opens up on this natural seep. This year round water resource attracts all kinds of animals including a mix of birds. The further we got from the campground so it also allowed us to escape a little from the hordes of campers and even better we were also pretty shaded from the howling winds.

It was beautiful and quiet here and we eventually started to run into some birds here including locally breeding specialties: Phainopepla, Rock Wren and the incredibly stunning Scott’s Orioles, as well as small mixed flocks that included a nice variety of migrants. As we slowly worked our way along the trail we found groups of early arriving species that included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers.

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Tiny Checkerspot – Luke Tiller

As well as the birds, Yaqui Wells also provided us with a bunch of pretty butterflies among the blooming flowers including Desert Orange Tip, Arizona Powdered-Skipper, Becker’s White, Tiny Checkerspot and sadly, a recently deceased Sleepy Orange. The finale of our trip was highlighted by two beautiful orioles, Hooded and Bullock’s, that we found feeding on a stunning Ocotillo – a real cacophony of color!

We ended our day with a respectable 53 species of birds including two species of owl, three species of oriole with Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the Scott’s Orioles probably among the highlights. We also enjoyed the beautiful scenery, this years much lauded superbloom (even if things were a little past peak) and some attractive butterflies. It was sad to have to head home and I can’t wait to do it again next year. Next time I definitely need to make sure I schedule more time in town!

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Ocotillo – Luke Tiller

Thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a fun day, especially Naresh for his wildflower knowledge and Hilary and Steve for providing our own private bathroom facilities on the day. I have posted a handful of shots from the day on my flickr page (here) and Naresh has kindly shared his photos from the day (here).

Bird Species List:

American Wigeon, Mallard, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher,Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Common Raven, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Phainopepla, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Scott’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch





Winter Rio Grande Valley Tour 2017

19 03 2017
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Great Kiskadee – Luke Tiller

Late this winter (2017) I was lucky enough to take a couple of friends on a private tour of Southern Texas. February is peak time for vagrant Mexican birds in the valley and so there were a number of nice birds out there to look for. My fiends had a great relaxed approach to the tour in that they just wanted to see the birding sites of the Rio Grande Valley and pick up what birds we could along the way. Having a small group kept us flexible allowing us to adjust plans on the fly.

Day 1:

Upon arrival at the first night’s hotel in San Antonio I ticked off a couple of year birds including my first Blue Jays of the year – a real treat for this westerner. After a night in San Antonio we got on the road towards Refugio hoping to run into a couple of rare warblers that had showed up in a little park there. On the drive down we picked up a few birds for our Bee County list including Vermilion Flycatcher and a number of Crested Caracaras. Also on our list was American Kestrel, which thanks to its abundance in Texas and proclivity for roadside telephone wires became a regular feature of our driveby county lists.

Our first stop was Lions/Shelly Park in Refugio where we were hoping for a couple of special warblers. Our first hour or so of birding turned up a Barred Owl, but the only rare (by date) bird we had stumbled upon among the mixed flocks was a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush. For a couple of first time Texas visitors, however, there were plenty of local specialties to enjoy including Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Black-crested Titmouse and Great Kiskadee.

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Tropical Parula – Luke Tiller

Just as I was starting to think about what time we needed to start getting on with the rest of our day, we ran into another mixed flock and there among the Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcathers and Yellow-rumped Warblers was a stunning male Tropical Parula! We enjoyed great views and captured a couple of nice shots of the bird as it flitted across the stream to alight in a tree just above us. With spirts lifted we started to hunt anew for our other target Golden-crowned Warbler. After a couple of brief sightings or hearings we eventually tracked the bird down with the help of some other birders – watching as it moved surreptitiously though the shadows of some streamside brush. First stop completed with two great ABA birds and a couple of Texas specialties under our belts too.

Swinging our way west now from Refugio we birded mainly from the car, picking off a bunch of roadside species for our Duval, Webb and Live Oak County lists and made a few opportune stops to pick off Carolina Chickadee, Redhead and White-tailed Hawk among others.  Highlight had however to be getting our first Green Jay of the trip – incredibly beautiful birds that it is simply impossible to tire of!

We ended our day all the way west in Laredo Texas. Arriving just in time to end our day along the Rio Grande at the Max Mandel Golf course. We started by taking a drive around the course in a golf cart (which as always was great fun) to pick up White-collared Seedeater (an obliging breeding plumaged male putting on a bit of a show) and enjoyed a few other species along the way. We then headed over to the club house to sit on the veranda and look for Red-billed Pigeon. As we were about to second guess that approach and head out onto the links to look for them two flew right past us on the US side of the river before heading across to the Mexican side. Here we sat watching them at our leisure as they perched up in some riverside trees allowing us prolonged scoped views. A simply fantastic end to a great first day.

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White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

We rounded off our day with incredible Korean BBQ and a couple of cold beers at BBQ Park in Laredo. If you find yourself in town go check them out (link here). Over great Bulgogi I joked that maybe we should just quit while we were ahead and go home the next day!

Day 2:

Our next day we headed southeast to Falcon Dam State Park. With the drought that had hit this part of Texas the birding was noticeably harder than previous years, with sparrows and other regular winterers much harder to find. Still we enjoyed our time, especially enjoying the hospitality of a couple of RVers who were kind enough to let us enjoy their bountiful (and marshmallow festooned feeders). As well as the regular feeder birds, we also picked up a few nice species including a couple of accommodating Olive Sparrows and our only Gray Catbird of the trip. There were lots of nice “desert” passerines around to enjoy like Black-throated Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia too.

We birded our way west back towards Laredo over the day eking out species as we went. Highlights included great looks and listens too Cactus Wren at a park that’s a little off that beaten track where we also ran into RGV birder extraordinaire Mary Gustafson, Purple Martins and Neotropic Cormorants.

We ended our day poking around a couple of off-the-beaten-track parks in Laredo, adding to their eBird species lists, before hitting up a small roost of Green Parakeets and Monk Parakeets. Not quite as action packed as the previous day, but with plenty of nice birds enjoyed through the day

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Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

Day 3:

We started our day heading south and east. First stop was Salineno where we picked up our first Plain Chachalacas and had another encounter with Red-billed Pigeon.  The (eight!) Red-billeds were perched upstream from us on an island a good mile away I would guess. They however did something I’ve never seen them do before when they took off heading right past us cutting across the boat launch directly behind us on the US side. Allowing me to fire off a handful of shots to document the moment, magical!

After spending a while along the river we decided to head over and check out the feeders. Between the near incessant forays of a couple of Cooper’s Hawks and the near constant din of many Red-winged Blackbirds we eventually picked off our target here: Audubon’s Oriole. While awaiting our quarry, we enjoyed other species and relished the wonderful photo ops the new setup here produced, including Altamira Orioles, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and more.

After a quick stop in Roma we made our way over to Estero Llano State Park. Though ostensibly here to look for a reported becard, with the strong winds hampering land birding we eventually focused on picking up a few of the more regularly occurring species including Anhingha, Common Pauraque, Least Grebe, Mottled Duck and an impressively huge American Alligator. Our time patiently seeking out the becard not completely wasted as we picked up a nice consolation Ovenbird attending a sheltered drip.

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Common Pauraque – Luke Tiller

We ended our day heading to dinner just a stone’s throw from a huge blackbird roost. Here we ran into a group of young Canadian birders who helped us find a White-winged Parakeet among a good number of Green Parakeets and we returned the favor by finding them some Bronzed Cowbirds among the thousands of Common Grackles. The Grackle roosts are quite spectacular and to me an integral part of the birding experience here. A fun end to the day!

Day 4:

With limitations on access to the dikes as Anzalduas and Bentsen it feels like Hook-billed Kite has become a much tougher find in Southern Texas these last couple of years. With just the one random sounding report in 2017 prior to our visit it wasn’t high on my list of expected species for the trip. It was therefore thrilling to find ourselves watching one fly overhead during our early morning hike out to the Kingfisher Overlook at Bentsen. Unfortunately focusing on getting everyone on it meant I didn’t have time to unpack my camera for a shot – not that I’m complaining as this was a most welcome and unexpected addition!

Next stop was at Anzalduas Park. Though our main target here was Sprague’s Pipit we initially had our focus drawn by a nice mixed flock of passerines that when carefully scrutinized finally yielded both Myrtle and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. We really enjoyed our time working through the flocks just picking off species as we went.

Eventually we settled into a designated hunt for Sprague’s Pipit. Though we were a small group we spread out across the pipit field as best we could in an attempt to flush up our quarry. Eventually we managed to locate a few (steadfastly ignoring Savannah Sparrows as we went) and eventually worked decent flight views of the birds as well as a few glimpses as they landed. The grass length was long enough however that they quickly disappeared upon touching down. That said the distinct “step up”  flight style was interesting to watch and pleased with views we left them to their day.

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Plain Chachalaca – Luke Tiller

Next stop on our day was the awesome National Butterfly Center. Here upon arrival we were informed that someone had just captured a photo of a male Varied Bunting near one of the feeding stations, so imagine my surprise when we pulled up, got out the car and it was literally the first bird I laid my eyes on. Though views were somewhat obscured we finally worked decent views of this incredibly beautiful bird. Crazily we were the last people to see it that day. Though it did appear later in the week it was unreliable at best making our sighting even more fortuitous. As well as the Varied Bunting we enjoyed some photography time at the NBC’s feeders (picking off Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee and accommodating White-tipped Doves) and also enjoyed chatting to the groups of arriving birders.

We ended our day at a parrot roost in McAllen where among a group of about 80 Red-crowned Parrots we also picked out a handful of Lilac-crowned Parrots and a couple of Red-lored Parrots. We were also hoping for roosting Turkey Vultures, and maybe a similar flying buteo, but only one large kettle of vultures materialized and seemed to rapidly disappear to roost somewhere else.

Day 5:

Our day started easily enough as we picked up a pair of Aplomado Falcons over at Old Port Isabel Rd, which was as dry as I have ever seen it. We drove out much further than I would have usually exploring a little but only came up with a handful of the regular species expected here and missed a few others. A flyby Peregrine was nice as was a Long-billed Curlew and a White-tailed Hawk hunkered down on a nest, a well spotted bonus.

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White-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Santa Ana was our next stop and it was as I often find it, somewhat birdless. Not that there weren’t nice birds to have here including nice views of a Sora sat in the open, but we had to work hard for our birds. It was quite an effort to finally track down a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, but once found it at least had the graciousness to show nicely for us. Weirdly one of the birds still missing from our trip was Green Kingfisher and I was shocked to only find one species of kingfisher in the whole park: Belted Kingfisher!

On the way to Santa Ana we had witnessed a sugar cane burn in progress, and upon leaving we found another burn that had been harvested already. Here we found huge numbers of circling Turkey Vultures and White-tailed Hawks but the heat haze made picking out species in the fields tough.

Our next stop was a return to hunt for the Rose-throated Becard. It had been on our itinerary for the day already but a lunchtime report meant that we wolfed down our lunch at Nana’s with a little more gusto than usual! We arrived at the park and within a few minutes I had located the beautiful young male perched in one of his favored trees. Incredible the difference a couple of days and about 20mph of wind makes when looking for passerines. We even managed to share it with a few other birders there on site and got a few decent photos too. Another mission accomplished. Seeing as we were there we decided we might as well use the opportunity to explore Estero a little more and we were blessed with some more great birds here including: Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and White-faced Ibis.

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Clay-colored Thrush – Luke Tiller

We ended our day at Frontera looking for Turkey Vultures and Zone-tailed Hawks coming in to roost but had to suffice with our first Black-bellied Whistling Duck (multiple flybys heading to roost) and Clay-colored Thrush.

Day 6:

With Green Kingfisher still not under our belt, we started our morning at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands where we soon picked up their resident pair in a nearby canal. We also added to our trip list a few nice and less expected species including Common Ground-Dove and a “rare at this time” first winter Orchard Oriole (another one for the rare bird alert). We also enjoyed good views of both thrasher species and a spanking male Lesser Goldfinch of the Black-backed variety.

Next we headed back to the spot where we had seen the raptors at the sugar cane burn the previous day, however, though viewing conditions were better we still didn’t manage to add anything new to our trip list there. An exploratory drive through some potentially interesting habitat did though earn us our first White-tailed Kites of the tour of which at least one proved somewhat photogenic.

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Inca Dove – Luke Tiller

Our next official stop was Frontera, where of course we ran into another Green Kingfisher. We also enjoyed good looks at a couple of previously encountered species like Clay-colored Thrush and Inca Dove and added at least one new one in the form of a big Amazilia hummingbird: Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

McAllen Nature Center finally afforded us the sight (but more importantly the sound) of Tropical Kingbird. Here we also picked up another White-tailed Kite and two pretty smart looking Red-tailed Hawks including a nice rufous morph bird and one very pale individual. Our next brief stop was spent looking for kingfishers on a nearby canal but we were only rewarded with the odd sight of a young Cooper’s Hawk trying to attack ducks on the water – a seemingly fruitless task.

We ended our day back at the same parrot roost as the other night. Here we picked up a few nice species while we waited including a large group of kettling Anhingas, a couple of Lesser Goldfinch and another Yellow-throated Warbler. As the first parrots started coming in towards the roost (including at least one Yellow-headed Parrot) they were spooked by the attack run of a Peregrine Falcon that was roosting on a nearby radio tower. It took the parrots a while to recover from that shock and so it wasn’t until just after 6:00pm that they returned. We had already pretty much given up on the chance of seeing a Zone-tailed Hawk by that time, as it was almost dusk, when dramatically one suddenly appeared as the sun just began to set – amazing! We then enjoyed sharing the parrots with a group of Elderhostel birders that had appeared for the parrot show just in time to get all four species. A great end to our last full day.

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Green Jay – Luke Tiller

Day 7:

Our last day of birding together started on our way north through Edinburg when a group of Northern Bobwhite hustled across the road in front of the car. We were ostensibly exploring an area which has held Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the past though our chances of finding one were slim. Still nothing ventured… Our next roadside stop produced a bunch of amorous Wild Turkeys, which was a treat and further poking around produced an uncommon Ash-throated Flycatcher and a couple of Lark Sparrows. It seemed however that the drought was having a similar effect here as it was in Zapata with mixed flocks hard to come by.

Winging our way north we stopped in Falfurrias as you do but turned up just a handful of the regular species. Continuing on our route we had a field with about 75 Sandhill Cranes feeding in it as well as the regular raptor show.

From there we made a handful of stops adding to our Jim Wells, Atascosa and Brexar County lists as we went. Lake Findley added a Cattle Egret or ten to our trip list but that was about it. Choke Canyon was however a little more profitable adding Common Gallinule and Forster’s Tern to our growing trip list> Highlight here was certainly a Great Horned Owl that was perhaps trying to draw our attention from a nearby nest which allowed for a couple of decent looks and a couple of in-flight photos too.

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Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

We finished our trip together at Braunig Lake where we picked up a handful of nice species including a few new ones including Song Sparrow and Greater Scaup. I then packed up my optics and we headed to San Antonio airport for the flight home while my friends headed to Rockport to take the boat ride out in the morning for Whooping Cranes before catching their flights home the following afternoon.

All in all, a wonderful trip in which we picked up pretty much everything you might hope to. We got lucky with a couple of great birds too like the Varied Bunting and Hook-billed Kite. You just never quite know what you might find in Southern Texas in February and that is surely part of the allure. You can see a few more photos from my trip on flickr page (here).





HMANA SoCal Winter Tour 2017

14 03 2017
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California Condor – Luke Tiller

Co-leading with fellow HMANA board member Tom Reed, I had the privilege of sharing  some of the incredible scenery and birds that make Southern California such a special place. It was a real pleasure to share my home turf with a great group of HMANA members. Here is the tour report:

Day one: 

We started our day down near LAX airport, so a logical first stop was therefore to explore a marina just a stones throw from the runways. Here we ran into local birding expert and author Kimball Garrett and eventually, with some work, a few of the rocky shoreline species we had hoped to run into here including Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher. We also enjoyed seeing a few gulls and terns including west coast specialties Glaucous-winged Gull and Western Gull as well as a couple of stunning Heerman’s Gulls! We also picked up our first raptor of the trip in the form of a Peregrine Falcon that was harassing the local beach pigeons.

After a quick lunch, we headed towards Eaton Canyon in Pasadena, but traffic and parking was bordering on the insane. It was great to see so many people out enjoying the outdoors on a beautiful holiday day but it wasn’t particularly conducive to our birding endeavors. That said we picked off a few birds between the melee of hikers including local specialties like the incredibly clownlike Acorn Woodpecker, the highly localized Nuttall’s Woodpecker and the recently split California Scrub Jay.  From there we checked a quieter little local park where we picked off Cassin’s Kingbird, California Towhees and a couple of California Thrashers.

We ended our day at what must be one of the most incredible birding spectacles in Southern California – the parrot roosts in Pasadena. Here hundreds, if not thousands of raucous Amazon parrots come to roost in winter. Scattered among trees and powerlines they descend on neighborhoods at dusk in order to roost communally. It’s quite the sight and even more so quite the sound. Among the throngs of mainly Red-crowned Parrots we picked out numerous Lilac-crowned Parrots and a handful of Yellow-headed Parrots. We ended our day out on the patio of an awesome pizza restaurant reflecting on a fun and productive first day.

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California Thrasher – Luke Tiller

Day two:

After spending the night in Palmdale CA, we started our day with an early morning run to Alpine Butte Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we enjoyed surveying the Antelope Valley, Mojave, Southern Sierras and San Gabriel Mountains stretched out all around us! We also enjoyed seeing our first Joshua Trees of the trip too.

Our first raptor encounters of the day included a distant Prairie Falcon and a “rufous-morph” Red-tailed Hawk. Searching a mix of agricultural fields and a desert oasis provided by a local golf course meant we were soon picking up some nice localized species including Nuttall’s Woodpecker and California Quail. Some roosting Turkey Vultures picked up from their golf course roost with intent leading us to head onwards in search of more raptor activity. We were not to be disappointed as our next stop provided us with a wealth of stunning raptors. Ferruginous Hawks are perhaps the most sought after buteo in North America, thanks both to its incredible beauty and relative rarity. These regal raptors are rarely commonly found except it seems in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Over the day we tallied double digit numbers of this spectacular raptor, enjoying both age classes and color morphs. Also putting on a show were a variety of Red-tailed Hawks including at least one stunning rufous-morph bird. We also managed to get decent looks at a staked out Great Horned Owl that was sharing its hunting grounds with these stunning diurnal raptors.

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Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

After a great lunch at a nearby taqueria we headed over to Apollo Park, where among the domestic ducks we found Ross’s Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose and Snow Goose. As well as the geese, we also added two more merganser species to our trip list, Hooded Merganser and Common Merganser, regardless of their name they are both somewhat uncommon in the region.

We ended our day on the eastern edge of Lancaster with a fly-in of 300 plus Snow Geese. In the surrounding desert scrub and agricultural fields, we added specialties like Tricolored Blackbird, Bell’s Sparrow and at least one more Ferruginous Hawk to our day’s tally!

Day three:

Most our third day was taken up with a visit to Bitter Creek NWR. The site is not open to the public and we were privileged to be allowed behind the scenes access to this incredible site. With the condors not being the earliest of risers we even were afforded a sleep in before we headed out to meet lead Condor biologist Joseph Brandt and his team.

After spending at least half an hour with Joseph answering all our questions concerning condors we headed off into the reserve in search of these incredible birds. We first spotted a distantly perched bird sat on the outside of a flight pen, but I think the memory that will be burned into everyone’s memory for the rest of their lives is when we came around a corner and there below us were a kettling group of eight California Condors – simply incredible! For the next thirty minutes we experienced the kind of condor encounter only a few ever get to experience. As the condors rose from the ravine below us, we obviously peeked their curiosity and they circled around us checking us out for a while. Joseph filled us in on more details of the project and answered a slew of further questions. We also got to see some of the tracking devices used on the birds in hand and got to touch a mind-bogglingly impressive primary feather from a California Condor. I think quite a few photos were taken as well! That experience must rate up there with any birding experience I have enjoyed.

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California Condor – Luke Tiller

Though the condors were the main prize, they were not our only raptor prize on Bitter Creek. On the way in we had added our first “elegans” Red-shouldered Hawk of the trip and while touring the refuge we had picked up multiple flavors of Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin and more impressively a rare Rough-legged Hawk. Rough-legged Hawk must rate as many hawkwatchers favorite buteo and these tundra raptors are not common in Southern California, so this was a real added bonus.  We even picked up a couple more Ferruginous Hawks for the tour including a beautiful dark morph bird which soared over us while we ate our packed lunch at some picnic tables near the condor technicians bunk house.

Leaving the reserve, we again ran into a light morph Rough-legged Hawk but this was outdone by our next raptor encounter, a stunning adult Golden Eagle. The eagle was sat in a roadside meadow and when we stopped to view it rather than fly away from us she decided to head straight past our vehicle. As she flew off the edge of the canyon behind us she came into the airspace of a couple of soaring California Condors with which she briefly tangled before they both called truce and flew to their own roosting spots. These birds then allowed us prolonged scoped views. Simply magical!

A couple of stops on the way home provided us with great birds like Wrentit, Phainopepla and Mountain Bluebird and distant views of both White-tailed Kite and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Day four:

Next stop on our action-packed tour was a visit to Tejon Ranch where Senior Ecologist Ellery Mayence and volunteers Steve and Chris treated us to an incredible tour of this magical location. Here among a range of diverse habitats, from oak chaparral to Joshua Tree forests we were witness to just some of what this incredibly large and diverse property has to offer. Our first quick stop was at a lake that offered up a wealth of waterfowl including a nice sized flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, a couple of Snow Geese and at least one Cackling Goose among the Canada Geese. There was also at least one Redhead and a couple of Eared Grebe to enjoy.

Among the flocks of sparrows on the property we found Lark Sparrows in abundance, Dark-eyed Juncos and picked through the zonotrichias to discover Golden-crowned Sparrows among the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrow flocks.

There were plenty of raptor highlights to enjoy too including a juvenile Bald Eagle, at least five Golden Eagles and two different subspecies of Merlin: “taiga” and “prairie”.  All the while our erstwhile guides plied us with fascinating information about the area, the ranch and its rich history. Even our plein air lunch stop was interrupted by magnificent birds as both Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles played in the air around us.

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Perhaps best of all, our day had been threatened by the promise of rain and yet we managed to get through almost the whole day with just a sprinkle or two. In fact the only real bad weather on the day almost just added to the atmosphere, when it started sleeting as we watched three Golden Eagles soar over the hills ahead of our convoy.

One of our last stops on site was one of the most memorable in terms of non-raptors as we enjoyed hundreds of Mountain Bluebirds fliting through a Joshua Tree forest like a wave of azure blue. We also picked out some cryptic but equally beautiful Sage Thrashers among them. Another memorable day in another magical place.

Day five:

At least in the last few years the concept of winter has been hard to come by in Southern California. However the winter of 2016/17 was something different, with rainfall way above average.  Day five of our tour had threatened to be a complete washout. Though plans to get to the mountains had to be scrapped we did at least have the time to seek out and find a few Mountain Plovers – a nice prize scooped between showers.

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Mountain Plover – Luke Tiller

As we headed into the LA basin though the weather caught up with us and my co-leader Tom and I drove through what can only be described as a deluge. It was accompanied by howling winds which made driving interesting to say the very least, especially through some of the mountain passes.

We were not to be completely denied birding time on the day however as a brief intermission in the rain and a quick U-turn allowed us a damp but productive stop in Sylmar to track down a couple of North America’s most glamorous woodpeckers: Williamson’s Sapsucker and Red-breasted Sapsucker! As we wended our way over for our night in Chino we managed to sneak in a couple more stops, that although not particularly birdy, at least offered the chance to stretch our legs and witness the sun finally peeking out from behind the rainclouds.

Day six:

Our last day together. We started off with an early morning start to add another raptor to our trip list: Burrowing Owl. Out in a bare field near at a community college in Chino we picked out a couple of these little cuties standing around their burrows. A great start to our activities.

Next stop was at Bonelli Regional Park, here we finally get some great views of the California subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk. There was much else to enjoy here, including owl species number two for the day: Barn Owl. The stop here was a productive one overall with Clark’s Grebe, Hutton’s Vireo, and Costa’s Hummingbird among the mix of interesting and exciting new birds. The varied habitats at Bonelli make it a perennial favorite with birders, but our main target here was California Gnatcatcher. Though it took a little work we eventually tracked a couple down and were rewarded with stellar views and ample photographic opportunities of this bird.

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California Gnatcatcher – Luke Tiller

Next stop was another favorite site for birdwatchers: Bolsa Chica. This mixed habitat coastal marsh provides a great spot to pick up a slew of interesting birds that utilize such environment including the Belding’s subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet and “Western Willet”. To pick just a few. It’s always a neat place to photograph, with birds brought closer to you by the bridge that takes you from the parking lot to the first brackish pond.

Other highlights here included a Reddish Egret which is hard to find anywhere else in the area, Red Knot (ditto) and possibly of most interest of all a rare Glaucous Gull that was loafing with a group of some of the more regular gull species. Looking at eBird reports we were probably the last birders to see that gull in Orange County as we watched it take off and disappear over the ponds, seemingly never to be seen again!

Our next stop was a brief one at the mouth of the San Gabriel, where among other commonly occurring species we picked out a neat looking little Mew Gull, itself somewhat uncommon here. By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and our time in Southern California together drawing to a close. We had just enough minutes of daylight to make one final stop. Here in an urban park in Los Angeles we picked out a few final species for the tour including our first Black-necked Stilts and a jaunty little female Vermilion Flycatcher. Our last bird of the trip perhaps one to keep in the back pocket for an armchair tick in the form of a couple of neat looking Egyptian Geese.

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“Western” Willet – Luke Tiller

In the end we had tallied an impressive 165 species of birds (HMANA SoCal Checklist 2017) in what, with the rain, amounted to little more than five days of active birding. We had tallied 17 species of diurnal raptors (20 including the owls). Memories of the incredible California Condor spectacle and the visit to Tejon Ranch will live long in the memory, as will the incredible number of Ferruginous Hawks and the bonus Rough-legged Hawk seen on the trip. A wonderful week in Southern California tasting some of the incredible birds and scenery this great state has to offer.





Los Angeles Raptors

20 11 2016
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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

When people think about Los Angeles I’m betting most of them aren’t thinking about raptors, and yet the deserts of Los Angeles County boast perhaps some of the better winter raptor watching in the country? Though Southern California generally isn’t great for witnessing raptor migration, beyond Borrego Valley Hawkwatch (see post here), winter does almost make up for it with plenty of stunning wintering raptors. Possibly the jewel in that crown is just an hour and a half or so from downtown Los Angeles: The Antelope Valley.

The Antelope Valley, though now sadly mainly devoid of the Pronghorn that gave the area its name, hosts a wealth of exciting winter raptors, among them a large number of highly prized Ferruginous Hawks.

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

While out birding today looking for Mountain Bluebirds and Mountain Plovers we managed to see at least ten of these impressive and beautiful buteos without much effort at all, which gives you some idea of there abundance. Most of them were light morphs, like the bird above, but one was a stunning dark bird (top) which is in keeping with the idea that about 10% of this species are dark. To find numbers of these birds all one needs do is drive backroads looking in the farm fields (they often perch on the ground) and atop the many telephone poles.

The mix of high desert scrub and agricultural habitat out in the valley seems to provide plenty of food for all including huge flocks of Horned Larks and mixed blackbird flocks. These in turn provide for plenty of prey items for falcons like the beautiful Prairie Falcon that we ran into below. This one had just plowed through a flock of Horned Larks before alighting just behind our vehicle.

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Prairie Falcon – Luke Tiller

American Kestrel are easily the most common Antelope Valley falcon, but Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine are all usually quite find-able in a day’s birding. Excitingly, as well as your standard “Taiga” Merlin it is sometimes possible to find a couple of other subspecies of these feisty little falcons Southern California. Though both are rare one can find both “Black” Merlin, generally on the coastal plain, and “Prairie” Merlin, like the one below, out in the deserts.

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Merlin (Richardson’s) – Luke Tiller

Ferruginous Hawks are certainly up there with my favorite raptors and and in January I am looking forward to sharing these wonderful birds with some fellow members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and with a tour group from Sunrise Birding. Let’s hope the birds are being as cooperative then!

OK one more Ferruginous Hawk photo before we go, just because. Samuel Pepys was quoted as saying that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I think one can safely say the same about Ferruginous Hawks too!

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller





Patch Grasshopper Sparrow

8 11 2016
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Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

When I picked my new patch out in Pasadena, CA it was based on the site providing an area of open ground among a patchwork of wooded suburban yards, gardens and parks. It was also home to a dog park which is what first took me there. Though Possum doesn’t like the off leash area there he does like walking around on a leash and getting a bunch of cookies for vague signs of good behavior.

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Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

My thought was that this open area would provide good opportunities to find a bunch of sparrow species (which along with raptors are up there with my favorite families). So far I haven’t been disappointed with at least fifteen species found at the park, with potential for more if they ever split the Fox Sparrows. The park checklist now boast about 140 species including a wealth of good birds: Eastern Phoebe, White and Black-throated Sparrows, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Broad-winged Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher and more (eBird Hotspot list here).

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Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

The thing I like about sparrows is that they offer a level of ID that is challenging but not impossible for most birders (so it’s fun to help people learn to ID them) and that they are often beautiful but in a subtle way. It would be hard to accuse the Grasshopper Sparrow of being a “Little Brown Job”.

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Grasshopper Sparrow – Vina Vieja

It’s actually been a slow year so far at Vina for me in terms of new birds. In fact it was only yesterday that I added my first new species for the year. Today’s Grasshopper Sparrow was a little more exciting to me than yesterday’s Double-crested Cormorant. Grasshopper Sparrow is pretty uncommon in LA County generally with this seemingly just the third record for the county this year in eBird.





Desert Get Away

10 10 2016
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American Redstart – Luke Tiller

I’ve been running a few local walks just to enjoy the process of fall migration and to get to meet a few local birders. That said there’s only so much fun you can have birding in a couple of hours, so I suggested to the group that maybe we could try something more extensive. Enough people seemed to like the idea and so for that reason this Thursday we found ourselves meeting at a park and ride on the 210 at La Canada in the wee hours of the morning in order to get to birding in the desert as near dawn as humanly possible.

We started our morning at what has rapidly become one of my favorite LA birding sites: Rancho Sierra Golf Course (which is either in Palmdale or Lancaster depending on who you believe). Our trip got off to a pretty explosive start when after spotting a couple of Black-throated Gray Warblers another sweep of my binoculars yielded a female type American Redstart. Views were brief at best before it flew and the group split to try cover as much territory as possible. In a couple of minutes though I had relocated the bird and it posed nicely in the bare twigs of a half dead cottonwood allowing good views for the group. What a nice start.  There was a nice mix of species at Rancho and it felt birdy but though we tried we didn’t come up with anything more exciting than the Redstart. That said a Rock Wren perched on the only rocky habitat there (an old concrete pipe) and two early Ferruginous Hawks (that had perhaps come in with the Turkey Vultures that were roosting in the trees at the course) were a nice bonus.

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Rock Wren – Luke Tiller

A quick stop at the farms on West 50th produced next to nothing and the diversionary drive to Apollo Park via Blackbird Park (the planes not the birds) was probably more entertaining. Apollo was quiet with almost nothing in the park of interest. It’s always interesting to me how one park in Lancaster can be busy and another almost dead. Perhaps timing or maybe where the migrants have arrived from? Probably the highlight of the visit to Apollo was finding a somewhat uncommon Horned Grebe. This was certainly my first for the park and there are just a couple of records of this species each year. It was also nice enough to be sat with one lone Eared Grebe which provided nice comparisons for the group.

Galileo Hills Silver Saddle Resort is an incredible and somewhat bizarre oasis in the south eastern corner of Kern County, just outside of California City. California City (the self-styled third biggest city in California) is itself an interesting failed suburban development (more here). The resort isn’t open to groups at the weekends which is what prompted me to hold this weekday trip. As you drive in from what is essentially the Mojave Desert, it’s amazing to come upon this small area of lush greenery. The lawns, ponds, fountains and trees here are a magnet and a safe haven for any number of wayward (and not so wayward) migrant birds. Silver Saddle boasts a number of incredible local records including such anomalies as Arctic Warbler (check out the eBird hotspot checklist here). Though not particularly busy on our visit a hybrid sapsucker was an interesting find.

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Hammond’s Flycatcher – Luke Tiller

On our way back to Mojave for the evening we made a quick stop at California City Central Park, the somewhat crumbling focal point for the areas development. Here we added a couple of new species for the trip including a latish Hammond’s Flycatcher that provided us the chance to work through empidonax flycatcher identification. This identification is more complicated than usual because, as well as the usual west coast empidonax suspects, between Galileo and the Central Park California City boasts multiple records of Least Flycatchers and one each of Yellow-bellied and Buff-breasted. We ended our day in Mojave at Mojave Thai Cuisine (yelp reviews here), enjoying great food and conversation about all things birding before heading for an early night in anticipation of more birding adventures the next day.

Friday we started our day bright and early at Silver Saddle. Again it wasn’t overly birdy but we did manage to add a couple of new species to our list including brief views of a Cassin’s Vireo and long and accommodating views of an Ovenbird. This eastern vagrant showed particularly well and allowed all that wanted to to get some nice photographic records of the bird.

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Ovenbird – Luke Tiller

With many of the group having evening plans in Los Angeles we decided to cut our adventure a little short. We however had time for a brief stop in California City back at the Central Park where we managed to add a handful of new birds for the trip including Western Wood-Pewee and Wilson’s Warbler. One of our last sightings of the tour was perhaps one of our best: a Lewis’s Woodpecker perched in a pondside snag around California Central Park. We got decent views of the bird perched and then got to witness its distinctive flight as it circled the lake a few times before heading off for a quieter spot along the golf course. A nice way to end the trip, with the Lewis’s and the American Redstart providing exciting bookends to a really fun trip.

I posted a few photos from the adventure on my flickr page (here) and am already thinking about where we might run something like this again in the future!

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Say’s Phoebe – Luke Tiller





Raptors of Panama

12 09 2016
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Bicolored Hawk

Last week I was lucky enough to spend five days co-leading a tour with the incredible Carlos Bethancourt in Darien Province, Panama with Sunrise Birding. Though raptors were not our specific focus at Canopy Camp we did have plenty of great encounters with them including one with perhaps the most sought after raptor in the world, a Harpy Eagle.

Our first day was taken up with a drive from Panama City down to the Darien where we encountered our first raptors of the trip. Our first was a beautiful little adult Double-toothed Kite. Though superficially they look somewhat like an accipiter these neat birds generally hunt lizards and insects by following troops of monkeys, picking off creatures that are escaping the commotion of a roving group of primates.

As the sun began to break out, on this thus far cloudy day, so small groups of Swallow-tailed Kites began to drift up from the surrounding forest before kettling up and making their way southwards on their migration. Swallow-tailed Kites are resident in Panama but these kettling groups of up to thirty birds were definitely migrants. Also migrating in smaller numbers were groups of Plumbeous Kites. These migratory kites are very akin to Mississippi Kites, but with much fancier rufous and black primaries. Plumbeous Kites only get as far north as Mexico to breed but do cross paths with Mississippi Kites during migration and in winter.

Our day ended at the Canopy Camp in Darien, where we were greeted on arrival by a flyover Zone-tailed Hawk.

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Crane Hawk

After waking to the sound of calling Mottled and Crested Owls, the morning of day two was spent mainly around the Canopy Camp itself. A Roadside Hawk or two are often patrolling the property and early morning a Savanna Hawk sailed over. As the morning warmed up, so did the raptor activity. Black and Turkey Vultures are abundant almost everywhere in Panama, but it’s foolish not to look at groups of them closely as there are often other similarly colored raptors hiding among them. In among the clouds of mainly Black Vultures we soon had Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and both adult and juvenile King Vultures. King Vultures must be up there with the most beautiful species of the vulture family, with the black and white adults much easier to pick out in the soaring throng than the all black juveniles.

During the day Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites again passed overhead pretty much constantly in ones and twos while resident species like Short-tailed Hawks caught some of the thermal activity. Later in the day we birded the very end of the Pan American Highway where roadsides offered us views of Bat Falcons and Roadside Hawks among the flocks of oropendolas and caciques. Another great day of raptor viewing in Panama.

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Laughing Falcon

Day three started with a short boat ride up the Chucanaque River. Though ostensibly to search out the very localized Dusky-backed Jacamar and other glorious species like Blue Cotinga and Golden-green Woodpecker there was always plenty of raptor action to be had. Along the river we picked up a couple of new species for the trip including Gray-lined Hawk (a relatively recent split from the Gray Hawk) and Crane Hawk, a beautiful and interesting raptor noted for their long legs and double-jointed tarsal bones. The aforementioned features allow the crane hawk to hunt successfully for prey in tree cavities.

Later in the day we again birded a couple of local roads where we managed to do something that would be pretty tough to do in the US: have a four kite species day. Adding Gray-headed Kite to Double-toothed, Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous. It was amazing to just have Swallow-tailed Kites flowing over most days in decent numbers in and of itself.

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Harpy Eagle Nest

Day four was one that will live long in my memory, an encounter with a Harpy Eagle. This bird had been recently discovered on a nest by a relatively nearby community and had only been seen by Carlos and our local guide thus far. It was a fair way away from where we were staying but was within the realms of possibility for a day trip.

The Harpy though wasn’t our first raptor of the day as we had to travel quite a distance to get to the nest site, first by car, then by boat and follow that up with a long walk through a sauna-like jungle. Boat rides are a great way to see raptors as they perch out along the river and our dugout “cruise” netted us a bunch of nice sightings of previously encountered species. The hike started in a plantain plantation where we encountered both Laughing Falcon and Black Hawk-eagle before setting off on our long march toward the Harpy. With temperatures hovering around 85 degrees and humidity right in that ballpark as well it wasn’t long before the hike had us pretty sweaty, pretty tired and a little sore. Harpy Eagles, however, are a pretty strong motivator so we shrugged off these minor inconveniences with good humor.

When we arrived at the nest site there was initial disappointment when nothing was visible in the nest, though that just made it all the sweeter when about fifteen minutes later there was some stirring of movement and one of the adult eagles stuck it’s head up above the parapet. We all did our best to oooh and aaaah in a respectfully hushed tone and enjoyed our wonderful scoped views from a deferential distance. After a short encounter with this magnificent bird we all hiked our way back to the boats with a definite spring in our step. This whole day was a magical one that I will have to write about more extensively another time.

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Harpy Eagle

We had enjoyed incredible weather for our whole trip considering it was the green season (realtor like code for rainy season) but our last day did finally see some daytime rain catch up with us. That said it wasn’t heavy enough to deter the birds or us hardy birders. While drizzle doesn’t really encourage soaring raptors it did encourage a beautiful juvenile Bicolored Hawk to grab a snag-top shower in our presence on our route back to Panama City. This forest accipiter is quite rare in Panama and can be quite tricky to see anywhere and even more so tricky to see well. It was in fact just the first juvenile Carlos had definitively encountered and probably the best views any of our group had ever had. Usual views of this species tend to be quick ones as they dash across a trail, but this bird sat with us for a full 20 minutes before we left him to his preening.

The trip ended back in Panama City where after the heavens opened they cleared just enough in the late afternoon to allow me to view a few raptors continuing their migration or heading to their roosts for the day. My impromptu hotel parking lot hawkwatch therfore netted me both Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites and at least a couple of Ospreys. My last “hawks” of my trip were a steady stream of Common Nighthawks heading for their wintering grounds at dusk. An enchanting end to a magical trip to Panama.

Next year I will be back in Panama with the Hawk Migration Association of North America especially for raptor migration. The Harpy Eagle is a long shot on this tour, but the tour is  just about perfectly timed if they repeat one of those two million raptor flight days over Panama City like they had in 2014. It certainly promises a more raptor focused trip with a few species that were not in the range of this tour. More on the HMANA website here. I’m also hoping I might convince Sunrise Birding to let me run their Darien trip again – more on that in the future I hope.

Raptor list for this five day tour of the Darien:

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, King Vulture, Osprey, Gray-headed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, Black Hawk-eagle, Double-toothed Kite, Bicolored Hawk, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Mottled Owl, Crested Owl, Red-throated Caracara, Northern Crested Caracara, Yellow-headed Caracara, Laughing Falcon, American Kestrel, Bat Falcon