Monday, November 03, 2008

My Favorite Tanager

I've seen a lot of tanager species in my years of bird watching. Both summer and scarlet tanagers nest on our 80-acre farm in southeast Ohio every summer—more scarlets by far. Tanagers come in a wide variety of color schemes, often involving bright red, yellow, or orange. Yet my favorite tanager is one that comes in subtle hues: the blue-gray tanager.

Blue-gray tanager in Cerro Azul, Panama.

I can't tell you why I like the blue-gray tanager best of all. Maybe it's because, like mountain bluebirds, they make the most of a rather plain uniform. Or perhaps it's because they are common and easy to see throughout much of the New World tropics—from central Mexico to the northern half of South America. I've enjoyed them in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and Peru.

Bay-headed tanagers are fabulously beautiful. I got to see them in Panama a few weeks ago, along with crimson-backed, silver-throated, and golden-hooded tanagers—all stunning birds.

I don't know. There's just something about a blue-gray tanager.

There's not much left on this piece of fruit.

During my recent trip to Panama, while staying at a nice hotel in Cerro Azul called Hostal Casa de Campo, there were blue-gray tanagers visiting the fruit feeder just outside the dining room. Due to our schedule and the weather we only had about 15 minutes with the birds, but I managed to capture a few worthwhile images in between bites of lunch.

Blue-gray tanager in Cerro Azul, Panama.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snow, the Wind and Rain

The snow has changed to rain. Bleech!

We are being assaulted by high winds and blasting sheets of rain. The rain is changing back and forth from liquid form to its slightly more solid forms of snow or sleet. This weather is just an inconvenience for most of us, but it always makes me worry about the birds and animals that have few options for getting out of such nasty weather.
Male eastern bluebird giving me the "More suet-dough please!" look.

Our bluebirds are keyed in to the suet dough once again. Perhaps its due to the cold and wet, or maybe they've already eaten all the large, obvious grasshoppers from the meadow. It's clear that the grapes and sumac fruits are rapidly disappearing—mostly down the throats of cedar waxwings, American robins, and European starlings. In any case we're keeping the feeders fully stocked with peanuts, sunflower seed, regular suet, and suet dough.

Having the bluebirds around the house reminds me it's time to winterize the nest boxes—many of which are used nightly by the bluebirds and by downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens. I'll get the roll of Mortite and warm it up in my pocket as I walk the bluebird trails. A four-inch strip will plug the vent holes at the top of the box keeping wet and cold weather outside and more bird body heat inside the boxes. I like thinking of a pair of bluebirds finding a cozy nighttime roost in a nest box with dry grass on the inside floor and weatheripped vent holes.

Female eastern bluebird.

This got me thinking about my own ability to escape the winter weather. If I had the means, I'd certainly spend much of the winter in the tropics. Not Florida or Arizona. I mean the serious tropics, where the common blue bird you see is a blue-gray tanager.

Blue-gray tanager.

It's a nice fantasy. Must find that buried treasure first. And buy lottery tickets.

In the meantime I think I'll winterize the nest boxes here....

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Upper Amazon

We enjoyed our first meal aboard El Delfin with a late and very large lunch. Fresh fish, various fruits, and a frozen dessert made from local fruits. I entered a food coma almost immediately and only came out of it when it was announced that we'd be taking a late afternoon birding excursion on the boat's two skiffs after siesta time. Es perfecto!

Strange fruit, but delicious when peeled and mashed into ice cream.

But I could not sleep--there was too much to see. So I went back to the top deck for some birding. Immediately I was fascinated by the various craft plying the river. Boats, rafts, and floating objects of all shapes and sizes were drifting downstream as we motored upstream.

Heading to the market.

Bananas heading to Nauta and then to the world beyond.

We passed small camps and settlements on the shore. The human population along the Amazon and its tributaries relies primarily on fishing, hunting, and small-plot farming. The effects from this subsistence living has greatly reduced the region's flora and fauna. Natural resource organizations and conservationists are rushing to preserve large tracts of rainforest. And they are beginning to work with the local communities to develop more sustainable means of living, including developing ecotourism projects. More on this in a future post.

Check out the footholds cut into the mud bank for access to the river below.

Washing day.

We passed many small dwellings that were not much more than campsites, though they probably were lived in nearly year-round and vacated when the floods of the rainy season swelled the river beyond its normal banks.

We also passed commercial boats including ferries, cargo craft, and even large skiffs full of gringo ecoturistas, who waved at us as though they were very happy to see us.
Turistas blancas.

Soon it was time for our own skiff adventure. We divided into two groups and headed off farther upstream in search of birds and other creatures to see. Among the group were at least three serious photographers and a few of us who were dabbling at being serious. We traded advice (I got much more than I gave) and asked photo questions freely.

"Hey what F-stop are you shooting at right now?"
"Is that an IS lens?"
"Are you completely KILLING that kingfisher?"
"Hey look at THIS shot I got!"
"Does anyone know how to turn the flash off on one of these things?"

It was pretty fun taking pictures of parrots overhead (all bad images) and passing large-billed terns (blurry as a vanilla milkshake), and the dark-green jungle. The light was good but failing fast so we motored over to the sunlit shore and right away had good luck.
One of El Delfin's two skiffs.

Ted Stedman was with our group on assignment for Outdoor Photographer magazine.

Along the Amazon and its tributaries raptors and vultures perch and prowl for food. It must be because this is the only edge habitat for miles around in this roadless region. But I have never seen so many birds of prey along any river, ever.

First among our photographable raptors was a yellow-headed caracara.
Yellow-headed caracaras. After a while I did not bother photographing them.

Farther downstream we came across a drab water-tyrant, sort of a cross between a wagtail and a warbler. It was flycatching midges on the muddy bank of the river.

Drab water-tyrant. Which begs the question: How can you be both drab AND a tyrant?

Riverside roadside hawk.

Here in the roadless Amazon there are many, many of the common hawk of Latin America known as the roadside hawk. But they are jokingly referred to as riverside hawks here--no roads! One of our El Delfin guides told us that at least 11 times and laughed his cabeza off every time.

Short-tailed parrots showing off their best field mark.

Flights of parrots and parakeets zipped back and forth across the river giving us impossibly bad looks. Without the knowledgeable ID skills of Pepe and Noam, we'd never have known what ANY of them were. All of them called loudly. None of them perched within our view.

It wasn't just birds, though. We found a small line of bats clinging to a mid-river snag. I have no clue what species these are, but they stayed put until we were right next to them , then flew in unison, like shorebirds avoiding a peregrine, and then settled back down on another snag farther up the stream. Perhaps one of my experienced tropical naturalist blog lurkers can help me with the ID here. Scott, are you there?

Some kind of river-loving bat. Later in the night they entered our cabins and feasted upon our blood. Not really. But Liam asked me that.

My favorite tropical tanager, the blue-gray, hove into view in a small flock. Too far for decent photos, but nice to see again. These BGTans were fancier than those I'd seen in Mexico and Guatemala. These had pale-blue wingbars which only added to their allure.

[Don't tell the blue-grays, but over the next few days I saw some other tanagers that really set my eyes on fire--bay-headed tanager and something called a paradise tanager! They really laid me low.]

Blue-gray tanagers (the tiny blue spots in this photo). Formerly my favorite tanager.

Soon enough the sun was down and it was starting to get buggy, so we turned the skiffs downstream and caught El Delfin in the middle of the river. Soon it would be dinner time, then, I hoped, a good night's sleep. I was still running a bit of a snooze deficit from the weekend before.
Ohhh Cholllly LOOK at that looooovely boat.

I did sleep, but could not WAIT to experience dawn on the Amazon. It was just hours away.

It's another pisco sour sunset....

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