Mar 192018

On our final day we drove ~ 1 1/2 hrs from Papallataca up to Antisana Ecological Reserve. Antisana is huge, at 125,000 hectares (~300,000 acres), and it is a great day-long birding destination that starts only an hour or so southeast of Quito, with a nice list of high-quality high-altitude target species. Unfortunately, we only had half a day to explore this location, but we made the best of the opportunity.

Antisana and paramo

Antisana Volcano and the vast paramo on a gorgeous day.

The altitude within the park ranges up to 18,714 ft at the peak of Antisana Volcano, but most birders travel the main road up to Mica Lake (Laguna Micacocha), which is at 13,000 ft. The road is entirely paved except for a mile or so near an active quarry, providing easy access, and there is no entry fee. Our first stop was the Tambo Condor Restaurant beyond the outskirts of the small town of Pintag.

Condor Restaurant

The entrance to Tambo Condor. The cliffs in the left background are where Andean Condors roost, but unfortunately this wooden sign was as close as we got to a Condor.

Tambo Condor is a convenient and worthwhile stop, partly because it is one of the few places (if not the only place) to get food along this road, but also because some quality birds can be seen here. To start, across the valley from the restaurant is a cliff face where Andean Condors roost. We were able to see many splotches of whitewash on the cliffs here, but alas, no condors. Another target that we were told could be found here is Giant Hummingbird, the largest hummingbird in the world at 9 inches long with an 8.5 inch wingspan, which to put in perspective, is approximately the same dimensions as our Northern Cardinal.(!!) Here we were more successful, spotting this outsized but otherwise plain bird several times. While waiting for breakfast to be served, we also spotted Black Flowerpiercer, a gorgeous Golden Grosbeak, Sparkling Violetears, and our only Stout-billed Cincloides of the trip. They have a small cabin for rent here, which could provide a nice base for a more relaxed exploration of the paramo. For somebody like me who has a few years under his belt and is used to the amount of oxygen at sea level, it would be interesting to see if sleeping at this altitude (11,550 ft) would be difficult. I certainly felt winded just walking up the short and slight incline from the restaurant up to the road.

Black Flowerpiercer

Here’s a nice Black Flowerpiercer that was in the garden at the Tambo Condor Restaurant.

Giant Hummingbird alert

An alert Giant Hummingbird. What it lacks in color it makes up for in size. Unfortunately it is hard to gauge the size of this bird from this photo, but it is a LARGE hummingbird, approximately the size of a cardinal.

Giant Hummingbird acrobatics

I was able to capture a Giant Hummingbird doing an aerial maneuver shortly after taking off from its perch. Note the distinctive white rump patch.


A Golden Grosbeak visited while we were waiting to see the Giant Hummingbird at Tambo Condor. Now that is what I call a gross beak!

After leaving the restaurant we progressed further uphill, constantly scanning the skies and the horizon for raptors. We did have one quick but otherwise great sighting of an Aplomado Falcon swooping across a field near the road. This was a large bird with the distinctive pointed falcon wing shape that appeared, swooped, and was gone in a flash. Very impressive. We spotted two other raptors along the road; Carunculated Caracaras are abundant up here, and on the way back down we found a perched Variable Hawk.

Carunculated Caracara alert

An alert Carunculated Caracara in the paramo. They were very common, with somewhere between 50 and 100 of them spotted during our day in Antisana Reserve.

Our target destination at the end of the road was Mica Lake (or Micacocha). Shortly before arriving there we spotted a pair of Black-faced Ibis conveniently feeding near the road. This is a large ibis, with a thick neck and legs, presumably to help withstand the cold at this altitude.

Black-faced Ibis calling

One of two Black-faced Ibis that we saw in the paramo. This is one of the rarer target birds up here.

When we arrived at the visitor center parking area, we were already running short of time. We barely had enough time to scan around the area, and then take a rushed walk to the overlook of the lake before needing to start our drive back downhill in time to get to the airport for our homebound flights. Although our time at the visitor center was very limited, we found several excellent birds within a ten-minute span, including nesting Ecuadorian Hillstar, multiple Tawny Antpittas, Plumbeous Sierra-finch, and Andean Tit-spinetail. At the lake we had poor scope views of Andean Coots and Ruddy Ducks before the alarm went off signaling that our birding time was up.

Tawny Antpitta

I missed getting a photo of a perched singing Tawny Antpitta at Papallacta Pass, but captured this one near the visitor’s center at Mica Lake.

Plumbeous Sierra-finch male

Here is a uniformly slate-gray male Plumbeous Sierra-finch. Yes, it is quite plumbeous indeed. The females have no gray, but instead look very much like a typical streaked brown sparrow.


A quartet of alpacas roamed around the grounds near the Mica Lake visitor’s center.

It was unfortunate that we were unable to spend more time up here; it is worth a full day to drive at a relaxed pace, stopping occasionally to scan the spacious 360-degree horizon, and to walk from the visitor center to the lakeside. I’m sure that there were plenty of other good high-altitude birds to be found along the lake and in the polylepis patches in the lower altitudes of the reserve. We were forced to leave them for another day and another vacation.

 Posted by at 9:59 PM
Mar 122018

After leaving San Isidro, our plan was to head upslope, staying one night in Guango Lodge and then treating ourselves on our final night at the Papallacta Hot Springs Resort, just 10 minutes beyond Guango. But then again, plans are meant to be flexible, right? Somehow we drove past Guango Lodge (apparently the navigator was sleeping or looking elsewhere), but since it was such a gorgeous cloudless day, we decided to continue driving even further upslope to Papallacta Pass. The weather up here is legendary for being fickle and nasty, as it was when we drove eastward over the pass after arriving on our first day, so we unanimously decided to take advantage of the clear skies while we had the chance. We found the rough dirt side road by the virgin shrine (there always seems to be a virgin shrine) and started driving up it towards the radio antennas where some high-quality birds can be found. The problem was that our Chevy Sail was not equipped for the 14,000 ft altitude, based on its frequent stalling, and the poor traction caused by the loose gravel and rocks was getting worse as we ascended. We decided not to risk tumbling down the steep hillside, so we turned around and headed back to Guango. It was a nice try, and we did pick up a few Variable Hawks, Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and a singing Tawny Antpitta (finally an antpitta that we found ourselves, not at a feeder station!!), but Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe would have to wait for another day and another year.

Papallacta and Antisana

On the level section of the road up to the Papallacta radio towers. Notice that trees are mostly replaced by low grasses up here. Snow-covered Antisana Volcano is peeking out behind the clouds on the left. We didn’t know if it would be out the next day when we were scheduled to drive up there.

Guango Lodge (8,600 ft elevation) is a delightful small lodge consisting of a single building with perhaps only 10 rooms that has a distinct feel from the other lodges that we visited on this trip. It is a birding lodge that hobbits might be comfortable in, with an alpine feel despite being near the equator, two fireplaces in the dining room, and small but cute rooms with nicely detailed curved ceilings.

Guango room

Our small room at Guango Lodge. I love the feel of the curved detailed ceiling and the rounded windows.

Guango hallway

The hallway at Guango, with its stone walls, again showing the curved ceiling.

Before we even unpacked our car at Guango a group entered the lodge and showed us photos of a Mountain Tapir that they just spotted ~5 minutes from the lodge. So without even unpacking, we rushed out on to the trail, armed only with their confusing directions. Amazingly, we found the location fairly quickly, but to no avail, although their report did serve to remind us of the wildlife possibilities up here.

Having spent a few hours on the Papallacta and tapir detours, we could now get back to birds. Our late afternoon walk was only mildly productive; although we didn’t see many birds, we did find one of the big targets for this location, a Gray-breasted Mountain-toucan on the Torrent Duck Trail. Coming back on the Pipeline Trail we bumped into a nice male Masked Trogon, and a Blue-and-Black Tanager. We stopped at the feeders hoping to find the stunning Sword-billed Hummingbird mixed in among the Long-tailed Sylphs, Collared Incas, and the numerous Tourmaline Sunangels, and Jeanine finally spotted one just as it was getting dark.

Maked Trogon male

A male Masked Trogon.

Tourmaline Sunagel

The delightful Tourmaline Sunagel was the most common hummingbird species at Guango.

Long-tailed Sylph

In contrast with the Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Long-tailed Sylph is elongated at the rear end.

Masked Flowerpiercer

Masked Flowerpiercers could be found near the Guango hummingbird feeders.

While Pete was taking a break, Jeanine and I took another stroll along the river, still hoping for a Fasciated Tiger-heron, even though this is at the far upper end of their range, or perhaps finding that tapir. We were surprised when a bird flew by quickly from the Papallacta River and up a smaller feeder stream. “White-capped Dipper!”, I shouted out.  “White-capped Dipper?” was what I was wondering. We had to find out. Well, to be more accurate, I had to find out to silence the doubters. We walked uphill on the streambank as far as we could, but came up empty. I thought it must be further upstream, and being a notoriously stubborn individual, suggested crossing the stream and following a small side trail that was on the opposite bank to see if we could find this bird. We crossed the stream. Nothing past the first bend. Nothing over the small ridge. One more small ridge and then I’d give up. But there it was. A gorgeous White-capped Dipper feeding close by along the shoreline, and it didn’t seem to care that we were watching it creep onto and over and around the rocks. What a treat.

White-capped Dipper

The White-capped Dipper that delighted us for an extended period with its feeding behavior along a small feeder stream.

Slaty-backed Chat-tyrant

A Slaty-backed Chat-tyrant posed for us near the river’s edge.

The next morning we had what was without a doubt the best few hours of birding of the entire trip. It started out with Turquoise Jays around the lodge. We took the short walk up to the Waterfall trail, which was then level and ran parallel above the highway. We were spotting birds all along this trail, often at eye level in the downslope treetops. Among these flocks we saw Northern Mountain-Caciques, Blue-backed Conebills, Black-chested and Lacrimose Mountain-tanagers, Pale-naped Brush-finches, Handsome Flycatchers, and multiple Pearled Treerunners. It was pure birding heaven; one of those times where new birds are almost coming too fast and furious. This is how birding always should be.


Serving as a great example of the change in species at different elevations, at the high elevation of Guango, Turquoise Jays replaced the Violaceous Jays that were at low elevation and Inca Jays that were at at mid-elevation.

Waterfall Trail

The Waterfall Trail where we had our best birding of the trip. It was level and comfortable, with great eye-level views of birds in the treetops below. Most importantly, it was full of good birds.

Pearled Treerunner

We found several Pearled Treerunners in the big flock on the Guango Waterfall Trail.

Blue-backed Conebill

Several Blue-backed Conebills were in the mixed-species flock at Guango.

Northern Mountain-Cacique

Northern Mountain-Cacique at eye level.

Hummer on flower

This is a hummingbird.

Gray-hooded Bush-tanager

Birds in the tropics are often skilled at hiding behind the thick foliage. This Gray-hooded Bush-tanager didn’t fool us.


This is a Pale-naped Brush-finch that landed and fed in the middle of the Guango Waterfall Trail.

After such a great morning, it was tough to move on, but hot springs were calling us. Our final night was to be spent in a spacious two-story cabin in the Papallacta Hot Springs Resort, a high-end resort complete with three hot spring pools that we had to ourselves. Before taking advantage of the pools we drove into the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve that begins just beyond the resort grounds. Here we saw two new high-elevation lifer hummingbirds, Shining Sunbeam and Mountain Velvetbreast; it’s always a treat to find hummingbirds away from feeders. Another treat  was seeing the lovely Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Hooded Mountain-tanager, completing a super four Mountain-tanager day.

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager

A Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager that we found in Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve.

Shining Sunbeam

Our first Shining Sunbeam (a lifer for me) in the polylepis forest of Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve.

It was time to sample the hot spring pools. Wow! How great to treat ourselves to some relaxing time. It was funny that while we were soaking in the pools, the adjacent flowering trees were visited by Great Thrushes and several Shining Sunbeams (don’t you just love some of these hummingbird names?), along with Sword-billed Hummingbirds that we were having trouble finding at Guango. Isn’t that the way it is sometimes? When you stop looking for some bird, then they show up.

Great Thrush

This Great Thrush was eating berries the way that I eat blueberries; just keep popping them in the mouth until it’s full.

Sword-billed Hummer

The bill of the Sword-billed Hummingbird is almost beyond belief. I saw this species on my two previous trips to Ecuador, but still let out a childlike “WOW!” when I saw it again. Pinocchio has nothing on this bird.

Hot spring pool

One of three hot spring pools, each at a different temperature, that we had all to ourselves, with Antisana in the background.

Tomorrow we head up to the paramo in Antisana National Park on our final day.

 Posted by at 3:31 PM
Mar 072018

After spending two days in the lowlands, we were prepared to head back upslope to what is perhaps THE go-to birding lodge on the east slope, Cabañas San Isidro. San Isidro is located at 6,800 ft, just a mile or two from the village of Cosanga. On our way upslope we continued our quest to find a Fasciated Tiger-heron, stopping at nearly every convenient river access, but to no avail. Nearly every stop yielded the requisite Black Phoebes and occasional Torrent Tyrannulets, and at one location we happened upon the most cooperative Torrent Duck. It seems that most ‘good’ birds drift away from us after they are spotted, but this bird kept feeding and coming closer and closer and closer, delivering a lengthy exhibition of Torrent Duck feeding behavior. Diving in and out of these raging rivers, including swimming upstream, has to be a tough way to earn a meal.

Torrent Duck

A Torrent Duck that treated us to extended close views.

It was great returning back to San Isidro. I had been here seven years ago, on my first-ever trip to Ecuador. Interestingly, I could even remember which cabin brother Rich and I occupied on that trip and where we spotted specific birds. It will forever be a mystery to me how I can remember where I saw my first and only Chestnut-bellied Thrush seven years ago, but now I can’t remember the name of a person that I met 10 minutes ago. Our cabin at San Isidro was spacious, with a private balcony and nice view. The grounds immediately surrounding the cabins are fairly level and sparsely vegetated, making it relatively convenient to find the birds. Our routine at San Isidro was to meet at 6:15AM near the lightpost, which draws in insects that the birds feed upon at first light. Montane and Olive-backed Woodcreepers, Inca Jays, Russet-backed Oropendolas, Crested Quetzal, Smoke-colored Pewee, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and Black-eared Hemispingus were found each morning. After breakfast and in the afternoons we would either stroll down Las Caucheras Road (the entry road from the highway), or sit by the hummingbird feeders, or walk down one of the trails. We enjoyed seeing Bluish Flowerpiercer, Azara’s Spinetails, Mountain Wren, Handsome Flycatcher, Powerful Woodpecker, and mixed flocks that included Beryl-spangled and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, which were all new species for our trip. New hummingbirds for the trip included Bronzy and Collared Incas, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and Fawn-breasted Brilliant. One morning we spotted a pair of large raptors soaring above the ridgeline, and after consulting the field guide realized that we we viewing our first Black-and-chestnut Eagles. It sure would have been nice to have our scopes with us then.

San Isidro room

Our spacious room at San Isidro, complete with our own personal balcony.

Inca Jay

Inca Jays were among the first birds to appear in the morning by the street light.

Russet-backed Oropendola

Russet-backed Oropendolas joined the Inca Jays in the morning feeding spree.

Montane Woodcreeper

Montane Woodcreepers were fairly common on the grounds.

Crested Quetzal

A male Crested Quetzal. Note the yellow bill, emerald green head, and the namesake crest.

Crested Quetzal2

The female Crested Quetzal, with her brown bill, brown head, and belly that is half red and half gray. Photo by Jeanine Apgar.

Powerful Woodpecker female

A female Powerful Woodpecker appeared while we were looking at tanagers. The female is very distinctive, with its brown-and-black barred belly.

Masked Trogon female

This female Masked Trogon flew in at eye level so close to us that I had to back up to get her in focus.

We were trying to cut down on the big lunches, so on two days we drove the tow or three miles down to Cosanga, where we found a small cafe that served great sopas. It was perfect…a large and light but tasty bowl of delicious homemade soup with great veggies and a chunk-o-chicken. A great lunch for $1. Try getting that in the US. After lunch we stopped by the Cosanga bridge (still searching for Fasciated Tiger-herons and more), and in the nearby field a spirited game of futbol was occurring in the rain. What great fun watching them all slide around in the mud, with much of the town in attendance. Between the field and the river we found cooperative Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters and Torrent Tyrannulets. It was a great afternoon of easy birding and sampling the local culture.

Chestnut-bellied Seedeater

We had great looks at a Chestnut-bellied Seedeater alongside the soccer field in Cosanga.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

Chestnut-breasted Coronets were the most numerous hummingbirds at San Isidro.

Like most of the birding lodges, San Isidro has an antpitta feeding station, where they attract White-breasted Antpitta. We went to the station on our first morning there as the guide tried whistling in a nearby calling antpitta, but it never came any closer, so that was a bust. The next day Jeanine and I had experienced enough of the antpitta circus, so we were birding elsewhere that morning, but Pete attended and was able to get good looks and a photo of the antpitta. Just our luck to pick the wrong day. But we went down to that area shortly afterward, and the antpitta still was singing its repetitive three-note call. I tried to imitate it in desperation, and surprisingly the bird came closer! I whistled again, and it appeared on the edge of the feeding area. Wow! Now THAT was unexpected…Greg the antpitta whistler.

White-breasted Antpitta

A White-breasted Antpitta. Photo by Pete Mooney.

San Isidro sunset

A nice sunset from the rooftop lookout above the entertainment building at San Isidro, looking toward Guacamayos Ridge.

I should mention two things about San Isidro that impressed me this time around. First of all, the quality of their food preparation seemed to be a level above the other lodges. Well done, Alejandro and staff. Second, they now have a covered pool area on the hillside. It is not really very hot here, but this could be a great place to just relax (I hear that the pool is slightly heated) with a short dip as a welcome change of pace. One minor letdown at San Isidro is that the Cock-of-the-Rock lek that used to be on the grounds is no longer active, but we already saw them at Narupa Reserve, so it was not such a great loss for us.

San Isidro pool

The new pool at San Isidro. It’s a nice touch, being covered, with an open modern architectural feel, and having a nice view of the hillside. I wish we found some time to use it. This amenity would be great if you are traveling with a non-birding partner.

Next stop: heading further upslope to Guango Lodge and Papallacta.

 Posted by at 7:57 PM
Feb 222018

On my previous trips to Ecuador we focused mainly on the mid-range altitudes, so on this trip we scheduled three days in the Napo River lowlands, hoping to find a new group of species. The Napo is a large tributary that eventually feeds into the Amazon River, but I hesitate to call the area that we visited ‘Amazonia’, which to me implies traveling downriver by boat to remote and untouched terrain. Due to time and budget constraints our goal was simply to get to a lower altitude by car and see as many convenient lowland species as possible.

We anticipated needing a break from birding after our first six days in Ecuador, so we scheduled a single night in Hosteria de las Orquideas, a comfortable roadside resort in Archidona, located around 1 1/2 hour drive from Wildsumaco Lodge at 1,900 ft elevation. We were fortunate to make it to the resort without incident, as our gas tank was nearly empty. Here in the US we are used to having gas stations spaced at convenient intervals, but during our entire two weeks in Ecuador we only saw maybe three gas stations, so it is a good idea to keep the tank as filled as possible to avoid running on fumes like we did. Whew.

Hosteria Orquideas was nice, with spacious cabins and a large swimming area that Jeanine and I put to good use. The resort is also advertised as Isla de Los Monos (Isle of Monkeys), and we found out why, with wild monkeys roaming freely on the grounds and occasionally even in the dining area.

Orquideas pool

The pool at Hosteria de las Orquideas was a delightful distraction after six straight days of birding.


A large troop of Squirrel Monkeys came for handouts outside the dining area at Hosteria de las Orquideas.

Monkey family

Squirrel Monkeys with youngsters.

Alert monkey

The Squirrel Monkeys were a photographer’s dream, with their color pattern and alert faces.

We did try birding the grounds, but partly because of the rain, we didn’t find too much new. Our best birding was along the river, where we spotted a Ringed Kingfisher (our first kingfisher of the trip), along with Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and calling Greater Kiskadees. We were anxious to get to lower and more remote territory, so instead of birding the resort grounds the next morning, we drove towards Puerto Misahualli and the Jatun Sacha Reserve (1,300 ft), stopping for a few minutes to scan at river crossings. In this way we found the lovely White-banded Swallows, Yellow-headed Caracara, Torrent Tyrannulets, Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters, Amazon Kingfisher, and large flock of White-collared Swifts.

We were scheduled to stay for two nights at the Jatun Sacha Tropical Rainforest Station, which is one of five properties run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation with the goals of preserving native forests, conducting research, and providing ecological education for the local people. I loved the atmosphere here, where we dined on simple food at long communal tables with the volunteers and students.

Jatun Sacha talk

A busload of students arrived at Jatun Sacha for an overnight exploration. Here they get an opening night presentation in the dining area by the director of Jatun Sacha and a few volunteers.

Hammock time

Pete and Jeanine taking advantage of the Jatun Sacha hammock area after dinner.


A tarantula that Pete found on our evening stroll.

I was very much looking forward to our first complete day at Jatun Sacha, which included a full day of guiding and an early morning visit to a parrot lick.  I won’t go into details, but the day was very disappointing, with our guide Milton Orozco showing up nearly an hour late with no explanation or apology, leaving early, getting lost on the trail, and trying to overcharge us despite showing him e-mails with the quoted price. In addition, the trail that he took us on ended above the cliff where the parrots were supposed to mass, so we wouldn’t have been able to even see them on the clay. Since we arrived late, there were few parrots to see anyway, but this entire morning was a major disappointment.

We spent the remainder of the day with Joy, a volunteer from Germany, who had a day off from her volunteering duties. It was a treat to chat and visit with her, to learn about what volunteering was like, to hear about their projects, and to have her and the staff show us the grounds.

Creek crosssing

On one hike we had to ford a small creek, carrying our shoes across.


For all you chocolate lovers out there, this is a cacao fruit sliced open for us on the Jatun Sacha property. Those individual white ‘nuts’ had a somewhat slimy covering with a delicate chocolate flavor.

Black Caracara

A Black Caracara on the Jatun Sacha Laguna Trail.

One of our more productive locations while at Jatun Sacha was a simple roadside farm that contained a few small watering holes just a short walk from the reserve. Stops here over the next two days yielded multiple new species for the trip, including Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jaçana, Bare-faced Ibis, Black Caracara, Cocoi Heron, Red-breasted Blackbird, Blue-black Grassquit, and Lesser Seed-finch.

IMG_2346 copy

Black Caracara and Little Blue Heron seem like odd perchmates, but here they are.

Cocoi Heron

Our only Cocoi Heron of the trip, roosting regally in a tree on the roadside farm.

Black-faced Nunbird

Black-faced Nunbird, which we saw near Jatun Sacha and at Laguna Paikawe.

Greater Ani

Greater Ani, which we saw at both Jatun Sacha and Laguna Paikawe. You can get a sense of how large and long-tailed and blue these birds are, especially when seen in flight or in better light.

In contrast to the disastrous day of guiding by Milton, the best part of our stay in the lowlands was a stop at Laguna Paikawe, a small lagoon with two islands just across the Napo River from Puerto Misahualli. The caretaker (owner?), Pedro Aguinda, paddles birders around the lagoon for perhaps an hour for only $5 per person. We had no appointment, but fortunately Pedro just finished a tour with two other birders when we arrived. The birding gods were smiling on us today! There were birds all over the lagoon…Pedro started by whistling in a Point-tailed Palmcreeper even before we entered the boat, and very soon afterward we were seeing Greater Ani, Striated Heron, Bare-necked Fruitcrows, Scarlet-crowned Barbets, Lemon-throated Barbets, Black-fronted Nunbird, Masked Crimson Tanager, a group of more than a dozen Hoatzins (including one on a nest!), and more. This boat tour gets my vote for the top highlight of our entire trip, and I encourage you to schedule a visit if you are in the area.

Laguna Paikawe

Pedro preparing to pole us around the laguna. I didn’t realize at the time what a treat this little tour would be.

Scarlet-crowned Barbets

Male and female Scarlet-crowned Barbets at Laguna Paikawe.

Striated Heron

Our only Striated Heron of the trip.


The enigmatic Hoatzin, perhaps my top target species for this trip. We found three in the treetops at Jatun Sacha, but then got great views of at least a dozen at Laguna Paikawe.

Double Hoatzins

A pair of Hoatzins patrolling near the nest site at Laguna Paikawe.

Hoatzin on branch

Hoatzins are such interesting birds. When you see them it is not surprising that they constitute their own separate family.

Upright Hoatzin

We saw perhaps fifteen Hoatzins at Laguna Paikawe.

Hoatzin on nest

Hoatzin on nest alongside the Laguna Paikawe canal.

After leaving Pedro, we started the ~2 hour drive up to San Isidro Lodge, our home for the next three nights. Before leaving the lowlands, however, Jeanine spotted a nearby Chestnut-eared Araçari for our final ‘good’ lowland bird.

Chestnut-eared Aracari

Chestnut-eared Araçari, our final ‘good’ bird from the lowlands. Jeanine captured it tossing a morsel of food into its own mouth.

 Posted by at 8:37 PM
Feb 222018

Birds will be returning back here to the northeast to breed soon (Red-winged Blackbird song is already reverberating in the marshes), so Jeanine and I have been taking steps to help some of our breeders. Two weeks ago we helped to move two Wood Duck boxes that have been unproductive. The idea was that these boxes were far too exposed or close to human access for the secretive Wood Ducks to nest there. So along with Cloverdale County Park manager Patti, we moved them toward the back end of their respective wet areas and hope to see nesting activity there this spring.


Hauling the box and pole to its new location.


Relocating the first box to its new location in the back reservoir.

Plans are underway to construct a pair of nest boxes for Prothonotary Warblers at Cloverdale this year too. Prothonotaries nest nearby, and they have been seen in the park for the last three years, but with no evidence yet of nesting activity there. Maybe a few boxes will lure them to nest on the grounds, so I’m anxious to get those boxes up this spring before they arrive.


This week was part two of our spring nest box work, as we helped with Wood Duck box maintenance at Forsythe NWR. Volunteers Joe and Bill have been monitoring the Wood Duck boxes for the past two years or so, and the boxes needed some upkeep. Wood Ducks are not a priority species for the refuge, so all the work on the 22 Wood Duck boxes on the Forsythe property are left to volunteers while the staff perform other duties. Using an old map, we were able to locate two boxes that had been ‘lost’ over the years, we cleared old nesting material and eggshells from the boxes, filled all the boxes with fresh cedar chip shavings (thanks to Bill), and made repairs on the boxes where necessary. Most of the boxes are located in about two feet or so of water, so Joe did most of the hands-on work because he was the only one with waders on. He therefore was the one who was most surprised when a mouse jumped out of one box, and when an Eastern Screech-owl was found roosting in another.

Brig trio

Brig’s Wood Duck volunteers, Biil (on left), Joe (center), with yours truly.


Joe did most of the hands-on Wood Duck box clean-up.

GP boxes

I finally get the opportunity to get my hands dirty and fill a box with a few inches of cedar chips.

Jeanine marsh

Jeanine hacking through the phragmites.

Like many other birders, we tend to focus on finding and watching and photographing birds, and we don’t spend nearly enough time to ensure that bird populations remain healthy and will be here for future generations. This is just one small attempt to do our part, and we encourage you to find a way to do the same in your home patch. Support environmental organizations, or help with habitat protection, or put up some nest boxes, but do something. Anything. You’ll feel better afterwards.


After the Wood Duck box maintenance was completed, we took a loop around Wildlife Drive, being rewarded with two nice views of mature Bald Eagles, and also by the very cooperative Snowy Owl that has been seen for several days on the north dike, and by an estimated 3,000 Snow Geese at the dogleg.

Snowy Owl Brig

Brig’s Snowy Owl was very cooperative today, with those golden alert eyes.

Snowy Owl Brig2

A sudden sound triggered the owl into an alert pose with outstretched neck.

 Posted by at 4:25 PM
Feb 182018

The next four days of our trip were spent in the area surrounding Wildsumaco Lodge. Although Wildsumaco is further along the Loreto road from Narupa Reserve, it is actually at a slightly higher elevation (3,590 ft at Narupa, 4,900 ft at Wildsumaco). There is considerable overlap therefore in the species seen at the two locations. Wildsumaco has a stronger reputation than Narupa, due the advantages of having a comfortable lodge with enough rooms to handle group tours and an extensive well-maintained trail system that provides access to excellent forest, whereas there is only sparse lodging (besides the two-room Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin) to stay overnight near Narupa Reserve.

WS lodging

One of the simple Wildsumaco cabins.

Birding began soon after we exited the Loreto Road at the village of Wawasumaco, driving on the ~6 km unpaved (and at times rough for our non-4WD vehicle) access road to the lodge. For approximately half of that distance the road passes through disturbed habitat that allowed us to stop occasionally and search for birds in the open areas. Several Swallow-tailed Kites flew overhead, we found our first Masked Tityra, and Blue-rumped Manakin and Buff-throated Saltator made brief appearances. Upon arrival at the lodge we settled into our new surroundings and immediately were provided with a late lunch. Lodging at Wildsumaco includes three meals per day (complete with soup and dessert), so we ate far more here than we typically do at home.

Wildsumaco dining

Dining at Wildsumaco Lodge. The fireplace with its nearby sofas at the far end of the lodge was a great place to re-live the day’s sightings.

Over the next few days we explored the Wildsumco trails and walked the road ~1 mile beyond the lodge toward the village of Pactosumaco. Mornings were typically spent near the lodge, starting in the parking area where birds were drawn in to feed upon insects that accumulated near the lights. Here we found our first Collared Trogon up close and personal, and Cerulean Warblers were feeding low, but we couldn’t find the nearby and very vocal Barred Forest Falcon. After breakfast we then explored the trails or walked the road. Our best forest birds included Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Montane Foliage-gleaner by the Research Station, and we worked hard to identify a Golden-winged Manakin. On one rainy walk on the F.A.C.E. trail one of the employees interrupted his trail maintenance duties to show us a well-hidden Band-bellied Owl. It can be difficult to spot birds in the dense forest, so we enjoyed the change of pace when birding the open areas near Pacto, where we found both Chestnut-bellied and Black-and-white Seedeaters, Scaled Pigeon, and Bronze-green Euphonia.

Wildsumaco trail

Pete and Jeanine on a typically steep and dense Wildsumaco trail.

On two days we took the ~15 minute walk down the Coopman’s Trail to the antipitta feeding station. Most lodges only attempt feedings in the morning, but at Wildsumaco they provide worms both in the morning and at 3PM. At both feedings Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted Antipittas made multiple appearances, and they were joined both days by a White-crowned Tapaculo. It was quite amazing to view such difficult species in close quarters. These ‘high-quality’ birds were joined by Gray-cheeked Thrush, a species that we see back home in New Jersey. It struck me how similar the antpittas were to the thrush in appearance and feeding style, looking like longer-legged thrushes without a tail. On our return back from the feeding area we spotted a Yellow-throated Toucan calling from a distant treetop (toucans always seem like a treat), and both Red-headed and Gilded Barbets were nice to see.

Antpitta station

Waiting patiently at the Wildumaco antpitta feeding station.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta

The shy and diminutive Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

Plain-backed Antpitta

The appropriately-named Plain Backed Antpitta is nearly twice the size of its Ochre-breasted relative.

White-crowned Tapaculo

White-crowned Tapaculo, a super ‘bonus’ bird at the antpitta station.

Birding was good and with a relaxing change of pace at the Wildsumaco veranda, where we could sit and watch Golden-collared Honeycreepers feed consistently in the cecropia trees, joined by occasional surprises. One afternoon Jeanine spotted a Golden-collared Toucanet skulking in a tree just a few feet behind the hummingbird feeders and the following morning she spotted a Sickle-winged Guan walking along the sturdier branches. A band of Napo Tamarin monkeys had daily excursions to feed on bananas hung in a tree near the veranda. Of course, the hummingbird feeders were delightful and constantly busy, although with much overlap with the species that we saw at Narupa Reserve the previous two days.

Wildsumaco veranda

Birding the treetops from the Wildsumaco veranda.

Wire-crested Thorntail

Wire-crested Thorntail, one of the more distinctive hummingbirds that we saw at both Narupa Reserve and at Wildsumaco.

We were often too tired to do much owling, but one night we managed a post-dinner burst of energy to walk along the access road, hearing Tropical Screech-owls and spotting an unidentified nightjar with its bright eyeshine hunting in a field by the entrance to the F.A.C.E. Trail.

This might be a good time to mention the weather pattern. During our days at both Narupa Reserve and at Wildsumaco, we had considerable rain throughout the days, yet somehow the rain didn’t interfere with our birding. Most days typically started clear and dry, allowing a morning of good birding, but then around lunchtime we had some strong downpours. I call that great timing. The afternoons were more spotty weather-wise, but after the mid-day showers birding picked up, and by evening we were completely exhausted. So in a way we were thankful for the showers, since they forced us to rest for a while indoors or on the veranda, the rains often resulted in better birding afterwards, and we always had a full day of birdwatching. On our final morning the sun finally emerged for a full day and we enjoyed a clear view of the conical peak of Sumaco Volcano.

Wildsumaco clouds

Clouds sometimes contributed to the dramatic vistas at sunrise and sunset.

Despite the fact that Wildsumaco has a deservedly strong reputation, the lodge was relatively empty during our stay. On our first night we overlapped with a group of ~12 birders, on the second night we shared the facilities with a single birder and his guide, and on the third night we were the only patrons. It is quite nice to feel like an entire lodge and its property is entirely yours.

Sumaco volcano

On our final day here the skies started clearing, resulting in a nice view of Sumaco Volcano.

There are so many species that can be seen here, and despite having four full days, we felt like we barely scratched the surface. As an example, our drive back out along the access road toward our next destination yielded Speckled Chachalacas with three young, a Channel-billed Toucan, Long-tailed Tyrant, a pair of preening Chestnut-fronted Macaws, and Lineated Woodpecker. Imagine how many more great species are lurking here.

Next: Into the lowlands and Jatun Sacha Reserve

 Posted by at 11:02 AM
Feb 122018

A few days ago the crew returned from a 14-day trip to Ecuador, birding the east slope of the Andes accompanied by my friends Pete and Jeanine. This was a mostly do-it-yourself trip where we hired local guides on only two of the fourteen days, so let me start with an overview of our route and some logistics. We wanted to try a self-guided tour, because an analogous trips that I took five years ago to the western slope of the Andes and last year to Colombia and Puerto Rico worked incredibly well, and as we shall see in a moment and in follow-up blog entries, the results were terrific this time too.

A birding trip to either the east or west slope of Ecuador is relatively easy to arrange and to do on your own, because there are sufficient birding lodges, the primary roads are in excellent condition, and very little city driving is required. The easiest way to increase the number of birds seen on a trip like this is to change elevation every few days. A simple two hour drive on the east slope can easily result in a 3,000 – 4,000 ft change in elevation and a brand new set of birds. Fortunately, on the east slope there are three excellent lodges that cater to birders and are spaced conveniently at different altitudes along the main highway, with Guango Lodge at 8,860 ft, Cabañas San Isidro at 6,800 ft, and Wildsumaco Lodge at 4,900 ft. These are the same three lodges that typically are used by the major birding tours to the area, so despite being a self-guided trip, the quality of our lodging and birding locations was top-flight. Our plan was to stay at these three lodges for 2-3 days each, and then expand a bit further downslope towards the Napo River to search for lower-altitude Amazonian basin species, and spend the final day in the high altitude paramo, organizing the tour such that we work our way upslope to acclimate to the elevation as the trip progressed. Because fourteen days of non-stop birding might be too intense even for me (some people mistakenly believe that the phrase ‘too much birding’ is a foreign concept for me), we interspersed breaks at two hotels where we could relax a little with some quality swimming and hot spring time. Our schedule looked like this:
Trip map2
Day 1: Arrive in Quito, rent car, drive downslope to Narupa Reserve (3,590 ft), staying at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin.
Day 2: guided birding in Narupa Reserve
Day 3: drive to Wildsumaco Lodge, birding along Loreto Road and the access road
Day 4: Birding on Wildsumaco Lodge trails and view antpitta feeding station
Day 5: Birding on Wildsumaco Lodge Trails
Day 6: Bird Wildsumaco Lodge Piha trail, drive down to Archidona (El Paraiso de las Orquideas) (1,900 ft)
Day 7: drive to Jatun Sacha Preserve (1,300 ft), birding along the way and at Jatun Sacha
Day 8: guided birding at Jatun Sacha
Day 9: canoe tour of Laguna Paikawe, then drive to Cabañas San Isidro
Day 10: birding San Isidro trails and Las Caucheras Road
Day 11: San Isidro trails and Baeza – San Borja bypass road
Day 12: San Isidro trails then drive to Guango Lodge; detour to Papallacta Pass
Day 13: Guango Lodge trails, then transfer to Termas de Papallacta
Day 14: drive up to Antisana National Park, then to Quito airport. Finis.

The posts that follow will provide plenty of details and highlights, but suffice it to say that we were able to identify more than 250 species of birds, mostly on our own. It was a great adventure, and although we did have the expected frustration of seeing and hearing birds that we couldn’t identify, we all thoroughly enjoyed two weeks of waking up every morning to new birds that we’d never seen before and having to identify them ourselves. In other words, real birding.

OK, enough with the introductory material. Let’s get the adventure started.

Cabanas porch

Jeanine at the Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin porch. Note the expansive size, detailed woodwork, and polished floors.

GP at Hollin 2

This waterfall view was just a few steps outside our cabina. I’ve seen videos of kayaks going over these falls. Amazing!

Day 1-3 Narupa Reserve. Because we live at sea level here in NJ, the trip was arranged such that we start at least part-way downslope and gradually work our way up the slope to avoid starting our trip with potential altitude problems (realize that Quito is 9,300 ft above sea level!). Fortunately, we arrived on schedule, got settled into our rental car (starting our lists with Vermillion Flycatcher and Sparkling Violetear in the rental lot), and within the hour we were driving over Papallacta Pass in horrendous fog and cold driving rain and towards our first destination, the Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin and Narupa Reserve, fairly far downslope at 3,590 ft above sea level. Along the way we stopped to stock up on supplies (a 5-gallon jug of water and some snacks) and to sample roadside birds. In this way we found our first Smooth-billed Anis, Black Phoebes, and Southern Lapwings, and at the Cosanga River bridge we found our first Torrent Duck, one of my personal target species for the trip.


Meals at Comedor Susanita were simple, in a roadside open-air setting.

We arrived at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin with some trepidation, since we did not know much about it. That trepidation disappeared immediately, and we found this local business to be one of the delights of our trip. If you are planning a self-guided trip to the region, we recommend staying here. Don’t expect anything fancy; just a clean, simple place to say and authentic home-cooked local fresh food. The cabaña consists of a single building with two large rooms that can be rented separately; one room contains two queen-sized beds and the other has three twin beds. There is an expansive deck with polished wood, all positioned a mere hundred yards or so away from a ~30 ft waterfall. The family that owns the cabañas lives on the grounds and also operates the small Comedor Susanita, where we had all our meals. There is a small garden with hummingbird feeders that kept us busy watching the plentiful Many-spotted Hummingbirds interspersed with occasional Golden-tailed Sapphires, White-tailed Hillstars, Black-throated Brilliants, Gould’s Jewelfronts, and Wire-crested Thorntails. After a good night sleep to recover from our travels, we met our guide for the day, Mario Pilataxi (manager of Narupa Reserve) for breakfast at the comedor. Within a minute of finishing breakfast, Mario called out “Amazonian Umbrellabird”, as three of these cotingas landed in a nearby tree. They are not spectacular-looking birds, being all-black, but how can you not love seeing a bird with that exotic name? Great start!

Amazonian Umbrellabird

One of three Amazonian Umbrellabirds that we saw at close range near Comedor Susanita on two consecutive mornings.

We drove uphill ~ 0.5 mile to the Narupa Reserve entrance (run by the Jocotoco Foundation) and walked a short trail there and enjoyed their hummingbird feeders, which additionally hosted Gorgeted Woodstar and Fork-tailed Woodnymph. Here and at nearby stops we became acquainted with species that we would see multiple times over the next few days, including Violaceous Jay, Slate-throated Redstart, Silver-beaked Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, both Russet-backed and Crested Oropendolas, Blue-and-Gray Tanager, and Ornate Flycatcher.  In addition we were treated to a suite of flashy tanagers including Blue-necked, Paradise, Golden, Spotted, Bay-headed, Orange-eared, and Golden-eared, had a trailside approach by an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, saw Cliff Flycatcher at a traditional location, and enjoyed Red-headed Barbet, Buff-rumped Warbler, Many-banded Aracari, and many others. At our final location we spotted Channel-billed Toucan, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and we had both Orange-breasted Falcon and Chestnut-fronted Macaw flying by in the same binocular view, prompting Mario to declare that Jeanine has mucha suerte to be seeing so many great species on her first full day in the tropics. I heartily agree; it was quite an impressive combination of birds to start the trip.


An Andean Cock-of-the-rock that greeted us in the morning at the start of the Narupa Reserve trail.

Narupa entrance

The indomitable trio in the Jocototo Foundation’s Narupa Reserve.

Red-headed Barbet

We spotted several Red-headed Barbets in the Narupa Reserve.

The next morning we walked and birded from the road before breakfast, re-finding Comedor Susanita’s Amazonian Umbrellabirds again near the bridge, along with another Cock-of-the-rock right in front of the comedor, a Highland Motmot in the garden, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Magpie Tanager, Violaceous Jays, and Short-tailed Swifts feeding over the river. After breakfast we bid a fond adios to Susanita, Leny, Angel, and the rest of the family and left for our next destination, Wildsumaco Lodge.

Violaceous Jay

Violaceous Jays were not uncommon on this trip, especially at lower-to-mid altitudes.

1 ga hollin

Saying good-bye to our host family at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin and Comedor Susanita. Gracias Leny y Susanita.

If you would like to stay at the Cabañas, which are extremely reasonably priced, contact Angel Crespo Vasquez at or click here.

Coming next: The adventure continues at Wildsumaco.

 Posted by at 9:37 PM
Dec 312017

It was a bitter cold day here in NJ when I started my final walk of 2017, with the temperature holding steady at 15 degrees with 12 mph winds for a wind chill factor of 1 (can’t we just round that down to zero?). Would any birds be active? The answer was a decisive ‘not many’. I saw a grand total of 12 birds (not 12 species…twelve BIRDS) in an hour and a half. Then when I had another 200 yards or so to return to my car, a bird flitted into the pines. I assumed it was going to be a common bird, perhaps a Carolina Chickadee or Golden-crowned Kinglet, but there were so few birds to look at this morning, that I was glad to finally have a reason to lift up the bins. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was neither of those species, being mostly greenish-gray, with mild streaking down its breast and a bright yellow undertail. Orange-crowned Warbler! What a great way to end the year. The bird fed deliberately in a small area of the pines but stayed on the opposite side of a fence, so I couldn’t get closer for better photos. Here’s my final bird for 2017.

Orange-crowned Warbler

One of the few Orange-crowned Warblers that I have found by myself. What a treat!

 Posted by at 6:54 PM
Dec 272017

This was an outstanding year for me, bird-wise. OK, I know…if we went back and looked at my best-of-2016 post, I probably said something similar for last year. And the year before. I don’t know if I broke any records in 2017 or even how many species I saw, but I do know that I had more fun than ever birding this year, and that is the point of this hobby, isn’t it? So what made it such a good year? Every year it gets harder to add new life birds, but this year I managed to add four new species locally (including one of my main nemesis birds), and the rarest of those rarities (Common Greenshank) didn’t even make this top-10 list. For me it was a good year for seeing Razorbills (just spend enough time patiently looking near the inlets in late winter, and you should see them) and American Golden-plovers (spend enough time scanning the shorebird flocks in late fall and they should eventually appear too). Other birds that stand out and that just missed the top-10 list include that interesting Red-necked Phalarope that stayed for just a few minutes in Whitesbog, my first NJ Yellow-headed Blackbird, an unexpected point-blank Dickcissel posing in the open ten feet away in Cox Hall Creek (a great bird while the camera was in the car…a theme for this year), the group of nine Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in Cape May, and finding our own unadvertised Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls.  Well, that’s a flavor of what the second ten would be.

Phalarope flight

An interesting rust-stained Red-necked Phalarope from Whitesbog.

Snowy Owl4

This has turned out to be a good Snowy Owl winter. Here’s one that we stumbled upon in November.

OK, with that serving as prelude; here are my top ten. I’ll note that these are not necessarily the toughest species for the year, but the experiences that stand out for one reason or another.

#10. Little Gull. Little Gull is one of those species that is not necessarily easy to see, but one which I thought I would have seen by now, so Jeanine and I were definitely targeting this nemesis species last year (unsuccessfully) and were trying again this year. We took several trips to Cape May and to South Amboy, where they tend to show up most reliably, but were coming up empty. Then when one bird was reported at Spruce Run Reservoir for two days in early April, we decided to drive over. While scanning through the flock of gulls we had a couple ‘maybe’ birds (OK, let’s admit it; when we haven’t seen a species before, we tend to morph anything even remotely close to it into the desired species), but then the real thing showed up, and it was clear that finally we were looking at a Little Gull, with graceful flight, short rounded wings and dark underwings. I was thankful that we had to find it ourselves and that nobody was there to point it out to us. We ‘earned’ this bird.

#9. Poor Man’s Pelagic. In June our friend Bob asked us to join him on a ‘Poor Mans’ Pelagic’, boarding a fishing boat and scanning for pelagic species, which for us meant primarily Shearwaters and Storm-petrels. It was a wonderful day, with the three of us sitting on the upper deck in the sun, relaxing all by ourselves, searching for our targets while the fishermen were busy below. And we did get them. Unlike the commercial pelagic trips, we didn’t have spotters pointing out the birds, and the boat was not putting out chum to bring the birds in, so it wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was mighty rewarding. We found multiple Wilson’s Storm-petrels, and both Cory’s and Great Shearwaters. A winter version of this trip just a week or two ago yielded a pair of Razorbills and hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls but not any other unusual winter birds that we were hoping for. We’ll be trying more of these trips sporadically next year.

Two Cory's

Two Cory’s Shearwaters from our Poor Man’s Pelagic.

#8. Prothonotary Warblers. I like seeing Prothonotary Warblers, and this was a good Prothonotary Warbler year. The most memorable one was at Cloverdale in spectacular lighting, glowing like a bright golden incandescent bulb, reflected in, and feeding just above the water line (once again, no camera). We had another one nesting in Belleplain, a couple in Estell Manor Park, and multiple birds interacting and calling in the Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve. It’s always great to see and hear the birds at the same time, and they were making a call that we were unfamiliar with.

Prothonotary nest cavity

A Prothonotary Warbler peeking out from its nest cavity.

#7. Cape May Warbler day at Island Beach State Park. I tend to see Cape May Warbler each year, but it’s not a guarantee and I’ve never seen more than maybe two in any day, so it’s one of those species that brings a smile at each appearance. We had hoped to see some at Garrett Mountain in May, but came up empty, and I assumed that we missed our best chance for the year. Then on an otherwise uneventful September 11th at Island Beach, we came to the blooming bayside Groundsel Bushes, and Cape May Warblers were popping up everywhere. I’ve never seen double digit Cape May Warblers, but there they were, difficult to count accurately because they were mobile and nearly every warbler that we saw in that area was a Cape May Warbler. And where was my camera? In the car, of course.

#6. Garrett Mountain. It seems like every year Garrett Mountain enters my top ten list, and with good reason. Even though we only went there once this spring, it was a super day, highlighted by a cooperative Mourning Warbler, an odd orangey Scarlet Tanager, my only Lincoln’s Sparrow for the year (where were the sparrows this fall?), and the complete selection of expected eastern thrushes and most warblers. In other words, a typical Garrett day. But it became a special day when we were eating lunch and our friend Bob stopped by, saying that he was hoping to see a Canada Warbler. Well, don’t you know that we just saw one not two minutes ago from that very same lunch bench, so we just pointed it out to him. Then we asked if there was anything else he was looking for. Tennessee Warbler, he replied. Well the smiles probably stretched across our faces from end to end, because we just heard one from that bench a few minutes ago. We got up, strolled a short distance, and could hear it still singing clearly, high up in the canopy. Two requests, and two birds. We can’t always fulfill birding requests, but when we do, it feels special. Doing it back-to-back? Priceless. All while eating lunch.

Scarlet Tanager hopping

A cooperative Scarlet Tanager from Garrett Mountain.

#5. Spring in High Point. We were lucky enough to reserve a cabin in High Point State Park in early June. It was a little past peak migration time, but good timing for the higher altitude northern breeding birds. It was a wonderful four days, with Cerulean Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos calling from above our porch, a Ruffed Grouse spotted with young birds crossing a trail, and a Great Horned Owl perched on a snag on the final evening. One drizzly day we drove up to the Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge, where the fields were full of singing Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks, and we were able to find previously reported Dickcissel and my lifer Henslow’s Sparrow. Above all, it was a great location, with excellent homemade food and super company. An unbeatable combination.


One of many Bobolinks at the Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge from our High Point trip.

Happy campers

Enjoying a roaring fire in our cabin.

#4. Puerto Rico. I only took one ‘real’ vacation this year, with brother Rich for siete días en Marzo en Puerto Rico. I have posted extensively on this trip (start here for the reports), so I won’t repeat it all, but we were able to see or hear all of the seventeen Puerto Rican endemics, without any guiding. This trip became more meaningful after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, causing massive damage. We were fortunate to visit the island when we did. I often wonder how different it is now at the locations that we visited.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker

The distinctive Puerto Rican Woodpecker.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

Scaly-naped Pigeon. Who knew that pigeons could look so great?

#3. Black Terns in the Sedge Islands. It wouldn’t be a top 10 list without trips to the Sedge Islands. During the summer, that is my favorite place to go, but don’t tell anybody. All told, I think I took fourteen canoeing/birding/swimming/picnicking trips there, averaging nearly once per week. I’d go there more often if I could, but balancing the Sedges with other things in life counts for something too. We had not seen many Black Terns this year, and then on September 5, we hit hit the jackpot. Jeanine spotted the first one, which flew off to another sand spit where it was joined by another and then another and another until we spotted thirteen of them in view at one time! Later on we spotted two more at the inlet and six more while canoeing the rest of the islands, but we posted 15 birds not to be greedy and because we couldn’t be sure if those six were from the original group. This was by far the highest total of Black Terns that I had ever seen anywhere in one day. The next day 10 Black Terns were reported by others at Sandy Hook, so they were really on the move.

Four Black Terns

Part of the Black Tern group.

#2. Two Sandwich Terns + solar eclipse = a thrill. August 21 was an eventful day in the US. This was the day of the total solar eclipse, the first one to cross the entire US in 108 years. Here in NJ, the eclipse was only going to reach ~75% totality, but where better to experience it than in the Sedge Islands. As we were exploring the main flats in near isolation, we could sense the creeping darkness and with a little ingenuity viewed it safely as a crescent/shadow on the ground. That was certainly cool and different. When we reached the inlet, we were greeted by a flock of Royal Terns that was begging to be scanned for a hidden treasure. And eventually something did pop out…a Sandwich Tern! And a minute later, another one appeared nearby. Last year Jeanine and I were fortunate to find our first Sandwich Tern in NJ, and now the bar was raised another level by finding two. The cherry on the cake was that one bird was an adult and the other an immature bird, so we were able to study them together. The birds were very cooperative, mixing with the Royal Terns, and feeding and flying as if they knew they were the stars of today’s show. Well, I’m not sure what gets the top vote: two Sandwich Terns or a solar eclipse, but together they were a winning and memorable combination.

Sandwich Terns

Two banded Sandwich Terns on the day of the solar eclipse.

#1. Little Egret. Little Egret was a species that was long sought after in the state, but it hadn’t been detected until this year, when Cameron Cox spotted one at Heislerville. For one day. And then it disappeared. For a week. Then Jeanine and I went to Heislerville to enjoy the annual shorebird spectacle there, and the first bird to our left after we parked on the dike was none other than that same Little Egret! We didn’t even have to get out of the car, and there it was alongside the dike, just a few yards away. This time the bird stayed for three more days before disappearing again, giving many more birders the opportunity to enjoy it. This was the first Little Egret in NJ, species #479 for the state. What an unexpected thrill it was to re-find it. There it is again…my favorite birding word…’unexpected’!

Snowy and Little Egrets

Snowy Egret (left) with NJ’s first Little Egret.

 Posted by at 8:28 AM
Dec 192017

Does it appear to you that somebody here has problems with directions?

Keep right sign

 Posted by at 7:14 AM