Thursday, December 11, 2008

Highlights of 2008: Birthday Lifer!

Bat falcon, Flores, Guatemala. March 3, 2008.

Am I jinxing myself by looking back at some of the year's most enjoyable birding moments before the year is even complete? I certainly hope not.*

One of the highlights from early 2008 was my birthday bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala. The bat falcon is a fairly common raptor in the tropics. In fact it was something of a sore point for me that I had not seen one after more than half a dozen trips to its range in Central America. I'd gotten amazing looks at a larger (and much rarer) relative, the orange-breasted falcon on two different trips to Tikal, but the bat falcon had eluded me.

My pal Jeff Bouton knew this and made it his special quest to add this bird to my list. He succeeded in high style, scoring me a Falco rufigularis on my actual birthday, last March 3rd.
I told this tale here in the pages of Bill of the Birds last March. JB shared his version of the event on his blog, The Leica Birding Blog.

The birthday bat falcon in Flores. It was a very patient bird.

The bat falcon, and being surrounded by friends and loved ones, made my birthday in 2008 a Happy Bird Day.

Gallo and life birds—they just seem to go together.

I believe there was also some beer and ice cream involved, though not at exactly the same time.

I get an ice cream assist while photographing the b-day bat falcon. Image by Jeff Bouton.

*The automatic URL pointer for this Blogspot version of Bill of the Birds went slightly haywire yesterday morning, so some of you may have been mistakenly redirected to the old Blogger BOTB. If that happened, sorry about that. You might want to fix your bookmark by copying the URL of this version. Or just sign up for the RSS feed and brace yourself for a daily helping of BOTB with a side of flies.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Oropendolas Forever

In Guatemala, in the middle of the Gran Plaza at the ancient Maya city of Tikal there is a clump of trees with a nesting colony of Montezuma oropendolas. These large dark birds are loud and conspicuous as they call to one another, and their huge baglike nests are a curiosity noticed by even the most bird-oblivious tourists.

This large member of the Icterid family (blackbirds and relatives) is a Central American native. They are quite common throughout their range and are often one of the first truly weird tropical birds added to the lifelists of visiting birders (after the 'everywhere' birds are seen).

Gorging on the fruits of a fig tree.

Males are a bright chestnut over most of the body. The tail is primarily bright yellow but the head is where the crazy color action starts, with a large light blue face patch and pink wattle. The bill is black with an orange tip. For a more complete description of the Montezuma oropendola, get Wiki with it.

Some colonies of the Montezuma oropendola may contain more than 150 nests.

The nests are intricately woven things, made up of small bits of vine, grass, and other plant fibers. The nests can hang down more than five feet, looking like really giant Baltimore oriole nests.

I've seen larger colonies of oropenola nests than the one at Tikal, but this one is easily approached and observe. The birds in the colony were nest building when I was there in early March. One or more would stay behind to thwart the ever-present guild of nest raiders hanging around the plaza. I watch a melodious blackbird make a pass at the nests as well as a great-tailed grackle. Both were routed from the area by the oropendola sentries. There were brown jays about, too, and I'll bet they eat quite a few oropendola eggs and young.

An adult Montezuma oropendola standing guard near the nest which is still under construction.

Flying from the colony to get nesting material.

Returning past Temple II with some small vines to add to the nest.

As I sat there on the warm stones of a side temple in the Gran Plaza, watching the Montezuma oropendolas come and go, I found myself wondering if the Mayan people watched the antecedents of these same birds nearly 1,000 years ago. Did the raucous burbling calls of this species echo off these same temple walls?

I am certain they did. And it's an amazing thing to ponder.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Pale-billeds at Yaxha

The male pale-billed excavates a grub from the base of a large tree.

On March 4, many of the participants in The International Birdwatching Encounter in Guatemala were split up into teams for a birding challenge. The team that saw the most bird species during the day would be the winners! There was much kvetching about who would be on what team and where would we go and so forth. It ended up just being another wonderful day of birding in The Peten.

We were bussed to Yaxha, an ancient Maya city much like Tikal, but less developed and excavated. The birding was brilliant. The weather varied between hot and humid, hot and rainy, hot and sunny, and just plain hot.

The day started auspiciously with at first one, then a pair of pale-billed woodpeckers. Although it was foggy, we all took many photos of these members of the genus Campephilus—same genus as the ivory-billed woodpecker.

That white thing hanging down from the woodpecker's bill is a giant wood-boring grub.

This image looks like a painting to me.

A quick flap to help hike up the tree trunk.

The pair, foraging together. Look how their pale bills and eyes stand out even from a distance.

I love the blazing red on the pale-billed's head, bisected on top by darkest black.

I wished Julie (confirmed ivory-billed woodpecker lover) had been there with me to watch these birds dig effortlessly into the base of a huge tree for similarly huge grubs. The grubs were so big, they looked like long white cigars in the bills of the woodpeckers. Alas Julie had awakened that morning feeling ill and elected (wisely) to stay at Villa Maya. Poor thing was down for two days.

Though these images aren't top quality, I thought I'd share them. These are special birds. Wish we still had our own Campephilus woodpeckers here in the USA. Who knows, maybe we do?

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 3, 2008

I went to bed on March 2, 2008, still a young man in my mid-40s. I awoke the next morning, on March 3, having crossed over into my 'late' 40s. This was mitigated somewhat by the fact that I was in Guatemala and had a full day of tropical birding ahead of me. Back in 2006, I also got to celebrate 3/3 in Guate.

Our 2008 group, attending the 4th Annual International Birdwatching Encounter, headed off in the pre-dawn darkness to Cerro Cahui, a reserve in the Peten Department of Guatemala that is mostly recovering woodland. We spent all morning on the trails there and the birding was excellent. If you don't believe me, check out Mike Bergin's account of the day.

Part of our group craning necks to see the gray-throated chat.

This post will be a glimmer across the events of March 3, 2008. I'll try to let the photos do most of the talking.

Rufous-tailed jacamar, calling from high in the canopy.

This tiny brown sprite is a ruddy-tailed flycatcher.

The gray-throated chat--such a boring name for a bird with huge patches of crimson.

Jeff Bouton's lunch. I warned him not to eat the pink sausages (lower right).

Julie Z (right) and Brian Bland, a top British birding tour leader, laughing over one of Brian's stories.

Climbing the nail-less tree tower. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Our lunch hotel had a tree-top tower, built without nails. It snaked up into a giant tree that shades the hotel's deck. From the ground you could not see the top of the tower. I HAD to climb it, so I gobbled down my lunch and hove off. It was a hardy climb up and a scary climb down, but the view was spectacular. When I got back to the ground I had no nails either, having bitten them all off.

The view from tower top, of Lago Peten Itza.

Birthday boy self-portrait in dorky hat on top of the tower.

The afternoon heat was settling upon us, so I decided, unilaterally, to go for a swim in Lago Peten Itza. I was assurred that, yes, there were cocodrillos, but they stayed over on the other side of the lake. The lure of the cool, blue water was too much to resist. My clothes came off. The Guatemalan boatmen shaded their eyes from the bright glare off my pasty-white skin.

I was happy I had very swimsuit-like underpants on. This meant there was a reduced liklihood of being arrested.

Mi amiga fina Liz Gordon joined me for the wonderfully cooling dip. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Boating across Lago Peten Itza to our buses waiting in Flores.

Nearing Flores we spotted a troop of howler monkeys in the lakeside trees.

Fellow traveler Jeff Bouton and I had an unspoken blood oath that I'd help him find the orange-breasted falcon at Tikal if he could show me a bat falcon. How I'd been to Guatemala three times prior without seeing a bat falcon was baffling to several of our party. Rick Wright even called me on a cellphone while we were in the boats crossing the lake to say he was looking at a bat falcon and did I see it. No. We were miles apart at that moment. It was a very kind gesture on Rick's part, though quite unkind to his cellphone bill I would imagine.

But just a few minutes later, as we were waiting for our afternoon cervezas at a dockside bar, good old Bouts came through. "Hey BT3! Come here and look at this bird! I think you'll want to see this bird, dude!"

It was my bat falcon. At last. Many pictures were taken. High fives were slapped. Bottles of Gallo were ceremoniously clinked. What a GREAT birthday gift. A lifer and a jinx life bird, at that! Jeff has already told his side of the story. But with better photos of the bird.

My birthday bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala!

Three of my best birding pals, (from L to R): Jeff Gordon, Jeff Bouton, and Jim McCormac at the bat falcon site.

Gallo goes great with a life bird.

Soon it was time to head back to Villa Maya for some afternoon programs and, perhaps, a short siesta. The balcony outside our room called to me and I sat there, looking at the lagoon beyond and enjoying the birds that happened by.

A pair of white-fronted Amazons was nesting in the tree near our balcony. This is the male.

On a late afternoon walk with Julie and Jim, JZ gives some scale to a palm frond.

Northern parula, which I later found out was a really great bird sighting for Villa Maya.

My last image of the day, a great egret stalking the dusky shallows at Villa Maya.

The very special (for me) day was capped off in grand style with a surprise birthday party after dinner, complete with yummy cake and candles, arranged by my dear amiga Ana Cristina. Julie had arranged for several of my closest friends to say a few words—toast or roast. I was completely flabbergasted.

Looking around the room at so many smiling faces standing up to sing Happy Birthday. . . lordy--it made my knees weak, but in a happy way.

I wish I could exactly recall the wonderfully funny and sweet things that Julie, Jim, Jeff B., Keith Hansen, and Marco Centeno said in my honor that night. But the truth is, I was overcome. And I am again, even now.

I am so lucky to have the wealth of friends and loved ones that are in my life.
What a journey. And I can't wait until tomorrow!

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head

Tikal's Gran Plaza.

On Wednesday, March 5, 2008, I was part of a group of international birders who spent the day enjoying the birds, animals, people, and the stone temples of Tikal, the ancient Maya city in northeast Guatemala. In the mid-afternoon we encountered a small flock of ocellated turkeys foraging in the shade behind Temple IV. The birds were accustomed to hordes of people walking past them, so we were able to get close for some full-frame shots.

Tikal is famous as a place to see the ocellated turkey, one of only two native turkey species in the world—the other being the wild turkey of North America. The OTs at Tikal are tame because they are not persecuted. Most other places in this bird's range they are hunted because they are a large wild creature packing a lot of tasty meat.

I shot 100 or so images of the ocellateds. They have incredibly ugly heads (blue with orange 'warts') balanced somewhat by gorgeous iridescent body feathers. I thought they might actually win the prize for ugliest bird head.

Little did I know it, but just 40 hours later I would be up close to a flock of wild turkeys in Raymond, Nebraska. They were coming in to a feeding station at the home of our hosts and friends Steve and Cheryl Eno. I shot another 100 frames of the world's OTHER turkey species from point-blank range, but through the glass pane of a window.

Several of the males were getting their snoods in an uproar, fanning their tails and sending the blood rushing to where it would have the most apparent effect. After all, it was a sunny day and there were some gallinaceous hotties nearby.

This got me pondering: Which Turkey Has The Ugliest Head?

Is it the ocellated turkey of the Central American jungle?
Or is it the wild turkey of North America.
America, we await your votes.
With only two native turkey species in the world, the winner of this contest can lay claim to the title:

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head!

First, the ocellated turkey: hairy blue head with orange lumps and red eye skin.

Second, our wild turkey contestants in various states of arousal, from least to most:

Please use the comment button below to register your vote. Vote early, vote often, but please vote. We will tally the results and pick a winner by the end of the day Wednesday, March 26, 2008.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Like Big Buttresses (and I cannot lie)

While walking a trail at Tikal, in Guatemala, our birding group encountered a GIANT set of buttress roots from a tree that was so tall we could not see its crown through the canopy. Here are Liz, Terry, and Sharon linking hands to show the scale of this huge tree.

On prior visits to Tikal I've always enjoyed communing with an old forest creature I call the Tarantula Tree. It's a huge ceiba tree, right along the main entrance path on the right as you walk in and it is ginormous enough that only the most oblivious of turistas miss it.

Two years ago I photographed a plumbeous kite in its upper branches. Last year I posed at the tree's base with fellow birder Jeff Gordon.

BT3 and Jeff Gordon showing both some scale and some legs at the base of the Tarantula Tree.

Why is it called the Tarantula Tree? Well, check out its bromeliad-covered branches. To me they look like giant tarantula legs reaching for the sun. Then again, the night before I coined that name for this tree, I encountered a large (six inches across) tarantula on the way back to my cabin.

The Tarantula Tree's uppermost portion.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Bagging the B-day Bat Falcon

My birthday bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala.

My amigo Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics helped me break a three-year birding jinx by showing me a bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala on my recent birfday.

He recounts the adventure, and in vivid style, on the Leica Birding Blog and you can read it simply by clicking here.

I will be telling my own version of the same story here in BOTB in the coming days. But I wanted to give Jeff a shout-out for his birding generosity and kind words. Thanks JB!

Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics is also a raptor ID expert.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Guatemala Day One


I arrived in Guatemala City in the early afternoon on Saturday, March 1. My friends from INGUAT, the Guatemalan Tourism Bureau, were there to meet me and whisked me off to the hotel where all the Encounter participants would be gathering.

Julie, Jeff, Liz, & Lisa were scheduled to arrive by 4 pm so I had time to check in, clean up, and prepare to spring the surprise. Terry Moore from Leica and by Ohio birding pal Jim McCormac were in the hotel courtyard so we sat down for a cold drink and some conversation.

The gang finally arrived after 6 pm. Jim devised a clever ploy to lure Julie up to where I was sitting, obscured by potted palm trees. He told her he had a ferruginous pygmy-owl in a tree in the courtyard. She followed him to the "bird" and peered around the corner to where he was pointing. When she saw it was me, she lost it.

Friends gathered around for hugs, high-fives, and much back-slapping. I was really glad to be there, at last. I have a few photos of the surprise being sprung and even a short video, but they are on my small Canon camera which is missing currently. If I find it, I will share the pix.

For the next couple of hours I enjoyed hearing about the week's experiences, adventures, and birds. We had a late dinner and then hit the hay. The next day's trip to The Peten would be starting at 3:30 am.

Sunday morning we headed to the Guatemala City airport for a flight to Santa Elena, near Flores in The Peten Department of northeastern Guatemala. It's a 30 minute flight, which is much better than an 8-hour drive in a car or an all-night bus ride.
Julie and our dear friend Marco Centeno from Guatemala City on the flight to Santa Elena.

Our group gathered onto shuttle buses and we went for breakfast in Flores, at a hotel overlooking Lago Peten Itza. And it was here that the birding and the Encounter began in earnest. I'll let the images take over from here...

The cathedral in the town of Flores on an island in the middle of Lago Peten Itza.

The birders lined up on the rail overlooking the lake.

A Flores boatman casts a reflection on the smooth water.

Purple gallinules were obvious, along with American coots and common moorhens.

Welcoming us to our first breakfast was a croc made of bread.

After brekky we got back on the buses and drove to our hotel for the next three days, Villa Maya. More birding ensued, including our first jungle species: collared aracaris, though in horrible light.

After a passing rainstorm the warm sun felt good to us birders, and also to this basilisk lizard.

Old friends human and avian were encountered, including this black-and-white warbler.

A rufous-tailed hummingbird returned every few minutes to sip nectar on the hotel's courtyard flowers. I love this bird's over-the-shoulder technique.

Tropical birding enthusiast Jim McCormac used all of his field skills to sneak up on some unusual palm trees for identification purposes.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not Getting to Guate

It's a drag not being able to go on a trip you've been looking forward to for months and months.
Our recent trip to Guatemala was nearly snatched away for me by circumstances beyond my feeble control.

My passport went AWOL.

It turns out you CAN replace a lost of stolen passport in very short order, if you are willing to pay an "I'll-never-be-this-careless-again" fee and can afford to hire the entire cast of The Bourne Ultimatum to walk your application through the U.S. State Department.

It also turns out that you should NEVER under any circumstances cancel a flight and then try to rebook it a few days later. Doing so immediately puts you on Darwin's Least Fit List as well as guaranteeing that your security screenings in every airport you visit will be alarmingly personal.

Here's what happened. I booked Julie and myself and three other friends into Las Tarrales, the tropical lodge/finca of our Guatemalan friends, Andy and Monica Burge. We were to head down to Guatemala a few days prior to the Fourth Annual Birdwatching Encounter to relax, unwind, and generally shake off the frost and icicles of this horrible winter.

The day before our departure, I was ready to go and only needed to get my passport, which I always keep in a certain place. It wasn't there. I looked everywhere. Nothing.

I reported it lost. Gave up the trip in despair, sent Julie on her way and wrestled with a Matterhorn of disappointment at missing the trip and at myself for being so careless. For my entire life I've never been someone who has lost things. In fact, I'm the one in my family that gets asked to find things others have lost.

So, no tropical vacation. And no seeing my Guatemalan pals. No celebrating my birthday in Guate. No raising my binocs to fill them with aracaris.

Of course, the kids were thrilled that I was going to be home for a few more days. Julie and I were to have left Guatemala before the Encounter was over, on March 6, to attend a birding festival in Kearney, Nebraska. The plan now was for me to meet Julie in Columbus upon her return from Guatemala, in time to fly to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Rumination. No passport, no tropical vacation. To top it of I was in the middle of a horrible chest cold. Probably best just to stay home and heal up and slow down and accept my fate like a big boy.

Then again, I love a logistical challenge.

So, I decided to see if I could go. Could I get a replacement passport in time to meet Julie and everyone for the start of the Encounter? Yes.

Everything quickly fell into place--or so I thought. Canceling the plane ticket and then re-booking it seemed easy. The woman at the airline's 800 number made it seem like no big deal to re-book. It wasn't. The airline (which shall remain unnamed pending the settlement of my refund request) ended up canceling the Nebraska leg of my trip arbitrarily. This resulted in twin sets of hassled begging at the ticket counters in Columbus and Lincoln. One was successful, one failed and in order to return home to Ohio on time this past Sunday, I had to buy another ticket. One way. Last minute. As they say in Guatemala: ¡Muy expensivo!

But that's a story for another day. Back to (not) Getting to Guatemala.

It was the chance to surprise Julie and my friends in Guatemala City that got me psyched. So I did everything necessary to fly south. Ordered my passport, re-booked ticket, hotel reservation in Columbus, got a ride to the airport from my dad.

The last thing I did before leaving home was e-mail Julie:

The kids are in at my folks' house. It's snowing again here. It's going to be a quiet night at home. Hope you're having fun!

The stage was set. Now I needed the passport delivery gods, the airline gods, the weather gods and the lords of logistics to smooth my path in order to spring the surprise.

Tomorrow: putting actual hands on actual passport.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

So Ugly It's Beautiful

I thought it was unfair of me to show a headless ocellated turkey from Tikal, so here is a close-up shot of the bird's head. Tikal is the best place in the world (many say) to see and photograph this unusual species. Dig those colorful caruncles?

I have a series of OT pix to share with you. GoogleBlogger is still gving me photo-uploading fits, so this one comes via Flickr.

Mas mañana, amigos!
--Guillermo de los Pajaros

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Tropical Bird Parts

We're up to our caruncles in sandhill cranes and snow geese in Nebraska in addition to giving talks and playing music, so it's been hard to keep up with my BOTB responsibilities. Here's something to chew on--it's a headless shot of a bird from Tikal. Do you know what it is?

I have LOTS of shots of bird parts to share and a few that are actually not so bad. Looking forward to having some time to get back into my blogflow. Now if the glacier of snow that's buried Ohio would melt just enough to permit safe travel, I'll be a campy happer.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Viaje a Guate

My apologies for the post-free nature of BOTB since last Saturday. I've been traveling to exotic lands and have not had ready access to the Internet.

This post will have to be necessarily short. It's 4:30 am and I'm sitting in the open-air lobby of the Villas Guatemala Hotel near Flores, Guatemala waiting for transport to Tikal for a final bout of birding. Then it's bus, airplane, shuttle, hotel, shuttle, airplane, airplane, airplane, airplane, Nebraska.

Going from the humid lowland forest of the Peten Department of Guatemala to the snow-blown flatness of Kearney, Nebraska is going to be muy interesante.

For now I'll leave you with this photograph of a black-headed trogon. More soon!

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