Friday, April 1, 2016

My 1st eBird Anniversary

The following blog post is a year-in-review (April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016) of my experience as a new user of eBird. I have been a birder for more than 25 years, and subsequently have had a long history of record-keeping and data management challenges. Enjoy.

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April 1, 2015 marked yet another major shift in my history as a birder and biologist; it was the day I started using eBird, developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to keep track of my bird observations. Since becoming a birder, sometime between 1988 and 1989 (it's hard to know exactly when one truly becomes a birder), I've been through a broad range of methods of storing and tracking my bird observations. And even though eBird launched in 2002, it took me 13 years to adopt it as a tool for recording bird observations! Some might call me a late adopter, but the truth of the matter is, eBird had some growing pains and the system I was using at the time served my needs.

My record-keeping in the early phase of my birding history was slim to none; some records were documented with photographs and fewer still were written down. It wasn't until the fall of 1990 when a good friend and birder, Peter Sherrington, encouraged me to keep track of my observations. At the time, I was cutting my teeth on the birds of Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. Peter advised that not much was known about the birds in that park, and that keeping track of my records could prove useful and at least provide a basic inventory of species; with enough information a good picture of species' chronologies (i.e. time of occurrence) and habitat use could be determined. Eight years later I published my first book, The Birds of Bow Valley Provincial Park - Ecology and Status, based on 6,195 records representing more than 50,000 birds of 189 species.

A labor of love, The Birds of Bow Valley Provincial Park was published in 1998

Records from Bow Valley Provincial Park were initially entered into a basic spreadsheet...some obscure program that worked in DOS. However, after a short time I started to use one of the first pieces of commercially-available birding software, Avisys. Within Avisys I kept all of my Bow Valley Provincial Park bird records, as well as any others birds that contributed to a 'complete' life list (i.e., any new species seen, including any new species seen at the state/province/country level). Unfortunately, almost all of those digital records were lost to a computer that ultimately crashed to an irrecoverable state. Fortunately, I did have the foresight to print a hardcopy of my Bow Valley Provincial Park records as part of writing my book.

Having a hardcopy back-up of bird records from Bow Valley Provincial Park proved critical

In 1995 I was encouraged by another birder to keep a permanent record of all of my observations, regardless of where and when they were seen. And so, in early February 1995, I commenced keeping a hardcopy record in hard-bound diaries. I kept records from every location and every date where I saw birds...this included parks, party's, and parking lots; university campus grounds; road trips; airports; and so on and so on. In some years, I generated more than 10,000 bird observations!

More than 20 years of bird records documented in hard-bound matching diaries.

When I returned to school in 1996 to commence my undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Calgary, I put my "birding" on hold (not entirely of course). Thus, for the next four years I made no attempt to keep track of my records digitally. In fact, I became much less interested in tracking my "life list" (although I enjoyed seeing new species), and much more interested in the ecology, behaviour, and conservation of birds. By the year 2000 (now married and slightly more intelligent), I was out of undergrad school and working steadily. My life list was getting little attention, but my 'diaries' were reaching epic proportions, making the daunting task of entering those records less inspiring with each passing day.

I do recall that sometime between 2002-2007 I quite literally 'glanced' at eBird. This glance probably occurred early in that range of years, and I distinctly remember creating a profile and entering a few records. I recall finding the process utterly cumbersome (using a PC), and the end result being underwhelming insofar that I couldn't be bothered to enter more records. Thus, at the time, eBird was not for me.

In July/August 2008, after visiting Panama in February, I was visiting my wife's family in the United Kingdom, and was asked, "So, how many different species have you seen?" The impetus of the question was based on my recent trip to Panama, and that I had been running around southern England trying to add more new species to my life list. The question was fair enough, and in 1995 I could have answered that question without blinking. Ironically, however, the best I could muster was a guess that was probably off by 20+ species. What I realized in that moment was that I had lost touch of something that I really enjoyed: counting species.

When I returned from the United Kingdom I took it upon myself to build a life list. I took a relatively simple approach at first, which was to compile a list of species primarily from memory, with some aid from my diaries (at this point I had 29 of them, each containing more than 5,000 records). I built the list in about two days using Microsoft Access, but shortly after I realized that my interests ran much, much deeper than a simple world list. I wanted to know how many species I had seen in each country, and in particular in each of two provinces (Alberta and British Columbia) where I had spent accumulating most of my bird records. That interest then expanded to wanting to know how many species I had seen in other provinces and states. For example, if I had seen two lifers in Montana, I wanted to know the total number of species I had seen in Montana. Both of these latter tasks were too great to take on at the time, and so I continued only to keep a master list for the world and for countries up to date. I did contemplate using commercially-available birding software again, but when I did my homework I was as underwhelmed as when I tested eBird several years earlier, and I didn't re-check eBird at this time to see if improvements had been made. At least after investing effort with Access I could answer the question, "How many birds have you seen?"

In 2014 I decided to add to my Access database the date of first observation to each of my life birds, as I was interested in looking at how my rate of accumulation of life birds varied over time. Assigning a first date was relatively easy for 90% of the species I had seen, as I was able to go through my diaries for all of the various countries/provinces/states I had visited, draw from my Bow Valley Provincial Park records, and glean from my early rare bird submissions which were published in various rare bird reports. But for common species, such as mallard or house sparrow, I have no idea when I truly added my first record. Thus, for a few species, there will be some true unknowns that will eventually be assigned the date in which they first occur in my sources of information (i.e., photos or notes).

On April 1, 2015 I went birding with two friends, Megan Willie and Jayme Brooks, in the Greater Victoria, British Columbia area. Both Megan and Jayme were recording our days' bird observations via eBird, using a mobile app (I should add, I was also a very late adopter of an app-based mobile device, having only got one in late 2014). I hadn't used eBird for years, and hadn't really kept abreast of eBird technological advances. Suffice it to say, that after birding with Megan and Jayme for two days, I was intrigued to investigate further by downloading the iOS version to my iPhone, and the companion BirdsEye app (for BirdsEye, I bought the annual World Membership to suit my current birding interests). That intrigue was fostered further by the fact that both Megan and Jayme 'shared' their lists with me, meaning I didn't have to [redundantly] enter the records. It took mere days thereafter to become hooked on the portability, utility, and expedience of the eBird experience (both mobile and laptop), and after logging a few hundred local checklists, sharing checklists with friends, and ultimately being exposed to the Explore Top 100 (essentially, Top 100 anything, by year or location), I was undeniably hooked. Moreover, the obvious security of having my observations stored on a secure server, and shared with the broader birding and scientific communities, were values that resonated with me. And as for Megan, Jayme, and myself, one of our favourite phrases each time we saw a new bird was to use eBird as a verb: "eBird that sh!t".

The eBird app interface; a simple yet powerful tool for logging bird observations

Now that eBird was entrenched in my birding life (and yes, I still hand write all of those records into diaries), this left me with a big task: How do I get my tens-of-thousands of records from notebooks and Access into eBird? The obvious answer: Enter them. The challenge: How to do it in the most efficient manner that provides the information I want to see first?

I began with entering my life list, which didn't rest with just importing my Access list; that would be too simple. eBird requires quite a bit more information (when you have it), such as not just providing the name of the country you're in, but rather the exact spot you're standing in, or the area you're travelling through or around. eBird also prefers some measure of effort invested in birding: What time of day did you start; For how long did you count birds; Over what distance were birds counted when travelling. But perhaps most important is how many individuals of each species did you see. Fortunately, I had most of this information in my diaries, and so the data entry process began. Where I didn't have this information, I used eBird's 'historical' data entry option, which allows users to enter records with incomplete or unknown information on effort. Subsequently, users can have all of their data on eBird, and more broadly the data contributes to the inventory and time of occurrence of species.

As I did when compiling my life list in Access, I went through all the different countries I had visited first (eight, not including my home country). This task produced the largest majority of species on my life list, somewhere in the range of 80-85%. I then systematically entered records from Canadian provinces (except Alberta and British Columbia where more than 98% of my Canadian records are from). At this stage, including those records that I had already processed since starting to use the eBird app in April 2015, I had more than 95% of my life birds added to eBird. I then systematically went through the species I was missing, which were all either from Alberta or British Columbia. Most of the remaining birds were "speciality" birds, and generally were easily found in my diaries from pelagic trips, trips to the alpine, or one-off trips I had made to chase a particular species. By August 2015 I had my entire life list on eBird...a great feeling of satisfaction.

What I hadn't anticipated when entering my records was: 1) dealing with differences in taxonomy updates, and; 2) dealing with regional coordinators (reviewers). eBird uses the Clement's Checklist of World Birds, and periodically updates the list as changes occur (i.e., name changes; species are lumped or split). The records I had entered into Access fortunately followed the Clement's taxonomy, but I had used a version that was two years older that what eBird was using at the time I was adding my life list. This meant doing a bit of sleuthing, primarily of tropical species, to figure out which species I had actually seen among those that didn't match. It didn't take too long to fix these problems, and subsequent taxonomic updates by eBird are largely automated. It was particularly satisfying that when in August 2015 the eBird Taxonomy update occurred, I had nothing to do but look at my automatically revised list.

Last published in hardcopy in 2007, the Clement's taxonomy of world birds forms the backbone of eBird. The list is now updated annually, in digital form.

"Rare" birds, as eBird classifies them, are species that are not necessarily rare. Instead, they tend to be species that occur outside of their expected normal range, occur in part of their range at unexpected times, or represent an unusually high count of that species. Over a period of more than 25 years of birding, I've certainly found my share of rare birds. Yet in the digital eyes of eBird, all of these records require vetting by a regional coordinator (a human!), regardless of when they were originally seen. The process is excellent indeed, although when I was entering large numbers of historical records from multiple locations I certainly I had a fair number of simultaneous follow-up questions to respond to from multiple coordinators. My experiences with regional coordinators, whether they were from Arkansas, Arizona, Panama, Peru, Morocco, or anywhere else, have all been excellent. In most instances I was able to provide satisfactory notes, provide additional clarity on the location, correct an accidental entry (i.e., a species had been split and I assigned the wrong one under the current taxonomy), and in two instances remove records because of uncertainty. While I personally strive to provide accurate records, I maintain wholeheartedly that if I have uncertainty in a record, after being questioned about it, I will remove that record if I have no additional information to support it. For example, I recently removed what I thought was a record of a herring gull from a checklist I submitted for Souss-Massa National Park, Morocco. While I did have good field notes, I did not have enough information to reliably distinguish the bird from a yellow-legged gull, which to my surprise, occasionally can have pink legs! I thank the regional coordinator for working through the process with me; and I learned something too!

Now, a full year into eBirding (as many call it), I have amassed 1,849 checklists comprising 1,823 species. Of those checklists, 728 were for the period April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016, and my processing of historical records to date resulted in 1,121 completed checklists. I'm currently processing my historical records from Bow Valley Provincial Park, mostly for sentimental reasons but also in consideration of updating my book. I have merely scratched the surface of entering all of my personal records, but after a year of using eBird I find it increasingly immersive on many fronts...currently I am using eBird to plan a 17-day birding trip to Australia, and I used it extensively to plan for Ecuador and Peru in 2015. I did not use the eBird mobile app when in Ecuador and Peru however, as most of the time I was not within cellular range. eBird does allow "offline" checklists, in which case you get an initial position from your phone's GPS and then verify the location later. I preferred to use a separate app (GPS Tour app for iPhone) to get Latitude, Longitude, and Elevation, which I then wrote into a waterproof field notebook with start and end times. I found that this wasn't overly cumbersome, and didn't detract from birding in any way, shape, or form. After returning from those trips, I entered the records online, which was better for reviewing and making any necessary changes...for example, the guides on both trips often used species names that were not represented in the current eBird taxonomy, which meant sorting that out in the field would have taken away from birding.

When birding in remote areas, I still prefer hardcopy notes. I eBird the records later.

Like many things that I've become obsessed with in my lifetime, I tend to engage rather intensively. Thus, I have already reached out to eBird with suggested improvements, which to my delight were received openly from eBird developers (FYI eBird, I will be sending more suggestions!). I also decided to celebrate my 1-year anniversary of eBirding by becoming an eBird Partner, which financially supports development of perhaps the largest citizen-science project in the world, but also gives me a chance to beta-test new elements of eBird and provide constructive feedback.

I don't regret having taken so long to adopt the use of eBird, because in doing so would serve no purpose. But if you find yourself in a similar position as I did, in having a seemingly insurmountable volume of information to process, perhaps some comfort can be taken from my experiences above. I do have a lot of work left to do, but getting my life list and country lists onto eBird was relatively quick and painless, and maybe amounted to no more than 100-150 hours of effort. And there is no doubt that the mobile app (available on iOS and Android) is a breeze to use, and great for running trip lists while on the go.

Until next time (perhaps a year from now), happy (e)birding wherever you may be.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Peru: December 3-5, 2015

December 3, 2015

Today was our last day at Manu Wildlife Centre, and tomorrow we were to continue our journey down the Rio Madre de Dios. Unfortunately, over the past week, there had been rumblings of unrest in Puerto Maldonado, the capital city of the Madre de Dios region, that would pose safety or logistical constraints for our tour. Local miners, who squeak out a modest living gleaning gold flakes from muddy river beds were being cracked down upon by the government, who conducted regular raids on miners and destroyed their equipment unless they had legal status to mine (a good story on this issue can be found here). The news we were receiving was that the local airport was closed, and that some fighting/rioting was occurring in the streets. For us, this meant that our leg of the tour that included Puerto Maldonado was now off the books. The implication of this upset was that we would now have to head all the back up river to Atalaya, and then drive back to Cuzco. You could feel the angst among the group, but in these situations adaptation is necessary.

We spent our last day at Manu Wildlife Centre birding the local trails. Today we started at 6:00am, and there was a profound feeling of exhaustion setting in with the group. The morning sky was bright and sunny, and already the temperature was very warm, and the air very humid. We needed some good birds to ignite a spark of renewed energy, and that spark happened. My first lifer for the day was Rusty-belted Tapaculo, one of the smarter-looking tapaculos, of which this individual was uncharacteristically cooperative for a tapaculo in terms of showing well. The next five birds were all 'ant-somethings': Common Scale-backed Antbird, Bluish-slate Antshrike, Long-winged Antwren, Gray Antwren, and Spot-winged Antshrike (lifer). Over the next hour or so we continued to add good birds, among which four were lifers for me: Rufous-tailed Flatbill, Blue-backed Manakin, Pavonine Quetzal, and Olive-backed Foliage-Gleaner.

Our next target bird was Razor-billed Currasow, a bird that our guide Alex could hear calling off in the distance. On our way to the location of the calling bird we found our only snake of the trip, which was no wider or longer than a standard pencil. As we pursued the currasow we added Rufous-tailed Foliage-Gleaner and Elegant Woodcreeper for the day, and after about 15 minutes of bush-whacking we finally located our quarry. The views weren't great as it was essentially a bottom-up view, but the view was good enough for a tick before the bird took flight and was never to be seen again by us.

A very small, well-hidden snake

Back on the trails we slowly started to make our way back to the lodge for lunch. Along the way we targeted several birds and had excellent luck. Over a period of about 90 minutes I added an impressive string of lifers, 12 in total, which were: Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin, Dusky-capped Greenlet, Rufous-capped Anthrush, Great Jacamar, White-bellied Tody-Tyrant, Gray Antbird, Rose-fronted Parakeet, Plain-throated Antwren, Chestnut-winged Hookbill, Spot-backed Antbird, Wing-barred Piprites, and Rufous-rumped Foliage-Gleaner. Back at the lodge, in the heat of the day, we had a quick lunch which was immediately followed by a mid-day siesta. We re-convened at 2:45pm and worked the local trails until near-dark at 5:50pm. Bird activity was very muted, and I had only 11 species, of which two were lifers: Cinereous Mourner and Slender-billed Xenops. Our last bird of the day was Common Pauraque.

Species seen today: 49
Lifers seen today: 21
Cumulative species for the trip: 536
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 252

December 4, 2015

Another sunny day, and it was going to be a hot one as we made the more than nine hour trek back up the Rio Madre de Dios to Atalaya, and then by van to Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge. The river was much calmer than just a few days ago, and the river level had dropped by several feet as illustrated in the two photos below. At the rivers highest point, only 5 steps at the boat launch were visible; now there were more than 20.

While in the boat we added a good tally of species for the day, but only one lifer during a necessary nature break: Little Ground-Tyrant. Some highlights from the river boat ride included: Bat Falcon (3), Amazon Kingfisher (1), Swallow-winged Puffbird (19), Crimson-crested Woodpecker (2), Black Caracara (3), Black Skimmer (2), Amazonian Umbrellabird (1), Blue-throated Piping-Guan (7), Purplish Jay (7), Bare-necked Fruitcrow (1), Sungrebe (1), Roseate Spoonbill (3), Lesser Kiskadee (1), Black Hawk-Eagle (1), and Fasciated Tiger-Heron (1).

As water levels retreated, the muddy vegetation was a stark indicator of how much rain fell.

After receding, the river level was 10-12 feet lower than just 2 days ago.

A bit of early morning fog paints a serene picture as we depart the Amazon. 

We arrived at Atalaya at 3:10pm, and shortly after we were on our bumpy way to the lodge. Alex scheduled a couple of stops along the way, but we were very pressed for time. Our first stop, at 580 m elevation, was at 4:10pm at a small patch of bamboo. Alex earned his stripes here, because in just 20 minutes he conjured up three lifers: Yellow-billed Nunbird, Bamboo Antshrike, and Plain Softail. Back in the van,we blistered our way along to the next stop, which occurred at 5:05pm and was located at 770 m elevation. Here we spent only five minutes birding, but got our target bird, Black-backed Tody-Flycatcher, almost instantly. We arrived at the lodge just after dark, and we were clearly all exhausted. Dinner was much appreciated, and after wrapping up our notes for the day it was off to bed. Tomorrow was going to be another long travel day, which would include driving to Cuzco to catch a flight to Lima.

Species seen today: 74
Lifers seen today: 5
Cumulative species for the trip: 554
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 257

December 5, 2015

There was no time to waste today. We needed to be at the Cuzco airport by 12:00pm in order to catch our flight to Lima. Nothing could go wrong...yet it did.

We departed Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge at 5:05am, and we really did have no time to do any birding. However, as we wound our way up the eastern Andes, Alex scoured the road edges looking for key birds, and he found one. At 1,780m, just 35 minutes into our drive, we added Andean Potoo to our list. At 6:20am we had a flat tire...but not to worry I thought, just put the spare on. Unfortunately, the spare was also flat, having occurred yesterday when the van was making its way to Atalaya to pick us up. We were in the middle of nowhere, but a truck came along with an air compressor and so our driver opted to put the punctured spare back on the van (apparently it was less-punctured than the current tire) and use the air compressor to inflate the tire. We continued along, but you could hear the hissing air escaping, knowing we had fewer than 15 minutes before it was flat. Again we were stuck, and creative solutions were needed.

I figured we were destined to miss our flight, as I watched helplessly as the driver and guide tried to solve what I thought was the impossible. The next temporary fix was an interesting one...the driver found an old rusty screw on the ground, and the decision was to plug the existing hole with the very kind of object that causes flat tires. Of course, there was no screwdriver to put the screw in with, and so a large stone to pound it in with would have to suffice. The driver then wrapped the screw with a bit of plastic from an old bag that had also been discarded at the roadside. Apparently the plastic would 'improve' the seal; I had my doubts. After bashing the screw in, we now needed air. Another truck arrived after about ten minutes and we inflated the tire; their was a hiss, but not as bad as before. I figured we had another 15 minutes. The decision was to go...and go quickly. For those of us who were entirely unhelpful in this process, we added Streaked Tuftedcheek, Cinnamon Flycatcher, White-banded Tyrannulet, and Moutain Cacique.

As we travelled along we noticed that the tire did not appear to be deflating. We stopped briefly to check it and noticed that the hissing had stopped. By my assessment, the screw had been pressed further in as it was compressed against rocks on the gravel road. It was an ingenious solution, but we still needed to get to Cuzco, and we needed [reliable] tires that would get us there. Fingers crossed, we arrived at a village about an hour later where we were able to get both tires repaired (not replaced of course). This took about an hour, and there truly was no time to waste. Back on the road, we headed straight to Cuzco and stopped only briefly to add one new species, Common Miner, at 4,120 m elevation and at 10:20am. We quite literally pulled into the Cuzco airport at 12:00pm, and Simon and I successfully checked in on time. Our guide, with Malcolm and Howard, would continue the tour as part of an extension.

No time to waste, yet we needed two tires fixed quickly.

The flight from Cuzco to Lima was uneventful, but the scenery was spectacular. We arrived on time, and Simon and I went our separate ways; he on to his connection back to the United Kingdom, and me to a hotel across the street as I had nearly 14 hours to wait for my flight, which was departing at 2:00am the next day. That was it for birding in Peru. An amazing and adventurous trip lead by Manu Expeditions; shortly after arriving home we began contemplating a trip to northern Peru for 2017...more lifers and adventure awaits. Until next time, happy birding.

Leaving the Cuzco region

 Approaching Lima, the absence of rain in the region is starkly obvious.

Species seen today: 11
Lifers seen today: 2
Cumulative species for the trip: 559
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 559

* the trip total of 259 differs from the actual total (555) because some 'species' we saw are not yet recognized (e.g., Ampay Tapaculo).

Peru: November 30 to December 2, 2015

November 30, 2015

At about 10:00pm [November 29] I was awoken by the sound of rain on the roof of the lodge. Fortunately I was able to get back to sleep quickly, with the only thought passing through my head being that I hoped the rain would stop before morning. It didn't. At 4:30am, just seconds after switching my alarm off, the sound of rain prevailed. This was going to be 'that day', that kind of day where you need to wear rubber boots, rain jackets, and a hat, and then doing everything possible to keep the rain off the bins...or so I thought. Today wasn't planned to be a 'birding day' per se, as today was largely a travel day, seven hours further downstream to the Manu Wildlife Centre. Following breakfast we would have a couple of hours to bird around the Amazonia Lodge, but by 9:00am we were to leave.

Breakfast was noticeably unhurried, and the thoughts of birding in the rain dampened our enthusiasm. Ultimately we opted not to go trail walking, but instead stay under cover of the roof over the garden balcony. I managed to tally 25 species from the gardens, of which one, the Amethyst Woodstar, was a lifer. Other notable birds included Gray-capped Flycatcher, Buff-rumped Warbler, Swallow-winged Puffbird, and Blue-throated Piping-Guan.

Blue-throated Piping-Guan in the pouring rain.

Naively, we thought that trudging around the trails and getting wet would make our boat travels uncomfortable...were we in for a surprise. At 9:00am the boat arrived, and our guides piled our bags into wheelbarrows, covered them with tarps, and took them to the boat. The boat, as mentioned previously, was about 400m from the lodge, and so when it was time to depart, we popped our umbrellas, donned our rain jackets and wellies, and followed the trail to the boat. The trail was wet, very wet, and when we got near the boat we discovered that a portion of the trail had been washed out by the river that had risen over night by several feet. Each of us had to traverse a rushing flow of water that was spanned by a narrow plank of wood. Howard was the first to go, with the assistance a guide, and in the flash of second the board was gone and Howard was up to his knees in muddy, fast-flowing water. But he made it. Next was Malcolm, who also ended up slipping from the high-points and became knee-deep in the swell. Simon, carrying his laptop bag, was next, and while he didn't go in up to his knees, the water topped his boots. I went last, managing to cross with only one boot filling with water. Discomfort had commenced.

Now we are at the boat, which was precariously edged up against the eroding bank with engine running just to keep it in place against the incredible speed of the river. Compared to two days ago, the river was a thick brown colour, several feet higher, travelling much faster, and now carrying trees, roots, branches, and stumps within its current. Perhaps worse, was that many hazards were now submerged, and you couldn't peer into the water to see them near the surface. Fearing for our safety, I asked the guide if this was worth the risk...the response, "no problem". I wasn't reassured, but got into the boat anyway and strapped my life jacket on.

Now onboard, the rushing muddy waters were real cause for concern.

Yes, it's as bad as it looks.

The seven hour boat ride was nerve-racking, but our guides did an excellent job navigating the dangerous waters. Despite the heavy rain and rough conditions, we did manage to spot some birds, including some lifers. The first lifer was Pied Lapwing, which for the day we saw four of them. I also added, purely by chance, an Undulated Tinamou that I saw briefly as I hopped out of the boat during our only 'nature break'. The next three lifers didn't come until we arrived at Manu Wildlife Center, where there were approximately 200 Sand-colored Nighthawks, 2 Ladder-tailed Nightjars, and a Drab Water-Tyrant. Other birds of note for the trip included 16 Capped Herons, 4 Roseate Spoonbills, 4 Eastern Kingbirds, 1 Burrowing Owl, 10 Cocoi Herons, 3 Large-billed Terns, and 1 Horned Screamer. Arriving at the lodge we were all thoroughly soaked, and so the first thing we each did was have a shower; at least it was warm. Following spreading my gear out to dry, including my field guide which was twice its original thickness and weight, we gathered in the main hall and watched birds at the feeders in the dying light. The day ended with just one new lifer, a Festive Coquette.

Of course we're still trying to see birds...

Surviving a turbulent and wet river boat ride

Species seen today: 56
Lifers seen today: 7
Cumulative species for the trip: 411
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 172

December 1, 2015

At 4:30am, when the alarm sounded to get up, the one thing I was pleased not to hear was the pelting of rain. In fact, the rain stopped late yesterday evening and our wish was that that marked the end of such unpleasantries. We assembled in the main hall for breakfast at 5:00am, and at 5:30am we once again got in the boat to head toward a patch of bamboo forest where we would target some key species. The river was still very high, and rising, and there were eight steps from the top of the dock to the boat. When we returned a few hors later there were just five steps, but by the time we left Manu Wildlife Center on December 3 there were 18 steps visible. Today, large logs continued to race by, but the weather was calm and relatively cool; a pleasant day for the Amazon!

Once at our site we added some relatively common species quickly, including Brown-chested Martin, White-winged Swallow, Giant Cowbird, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, and Yellow-rumped Cacique. My first lifer for the day was Rufous-breasted Piculet, which showed well after a few minutes of coaxing with call playback. Following this sighting we added Large-headed Flatbill, and then my second lifer for the day, Manu Antbird. Over the next few hours we added most of our target species, and the list of lifers was impressive: Dusky-cheeked Foliage-Gleaner, Lined Seedeater, White-bearded Hermit, Goeldi's Antbird, Moustached Wren, Dusky-tailed Flatbill, Peruvian Recurvebill, White-throated Toucan, Blue-headed Macaw, Riparian Antbird, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, White-chinned Sapphire, Red-and-Green Macaw, Creamy-bellied Thrush, Plum-throated Cotinga, and Long-billed Woodcreeper. An impressive morning of birding, especially when factoring the many other species we saw that were not lifers. We returned to the lodge for lunch for 12:00pm.

After lunch it was nap time, but only for an hour. At 2:00pm we departed once again, this time along one of the many trails at the Manu Wildlife Centre which eventually led us to a canopy tower. This tower had a set of stairs that spiraled  to the top of the forest, the diameter of the tower being nearly the same as that of the tree in which it climbed. On our way to the tower we picked up some good birds, the first being Long-winged Antwren, then White-bellied Parrot and Ruddy Quail-Dove. Once at the top of the tower, it was a matter of sit-and-wait. But we didn't have to wait long for the first lifer to show up, which was Curl-crested Aracari, rapidly followed by Casqued Cacique. Now the real wait was to begin, as bird activity was severely depressed with the late day heat and humidity. We did occasionally add a few common species, such as Black-fronted Nunbird, Scarlet Macaw, and Golden-bellied Euphonia, but after an hour we were getting antsy. I propose the following definition for the word 'antsy' be added to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: a term used by birders to describe growing impatience for seeing new birds with the word 'ant' in their name. Similarly, I propose a new definition for the word 'antics': a term used to describe the action of birders ticking birds with the word 'ant' in their name.

An incredible canopy tower, this was an impressive climb.

View from the canopy. A sea of green with well-hidden feathered gems.

Tower and Tree. Impressive.

After about an hour of relative inactivity, contemplation of giving up and heading down from the canopy surfaced. We decided collectively to wait another five minutes, and we're glad we did. Over the next 30-45 minutes we had a good mixed-species flock move through the canopy, and lifers racked up quickly. These were Spotted Puffbird, Sirystes, Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Channel-billed Toucan, Ivory-billed Aracari, Red-stained Woodpecker, Spangled Cotinga, and Opal-rumped Tanager. Our last bird from the canopy was Purple Honeycreeper. As we headed back to the lodge in the last bit of light we managed to add two more new species for the day, Grayish Mourner and Plumbeous Antbird. We wrapped up the day as usual, with showers, note compilations, and a great meal. Having had an amazing day, with 33 lifers and cracking 200 new species for the trip, I was in bed and asleep by 8:00pm.

Enchanting accommodation in the Amazon.

Species seen today: 90
Lifers seen today: 33
Cumulative species for the trip: 461
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 205

December 2, 2015

At 5:30am, sunrise over the Rio Madres de Dios was spectacular, with the early morning sun filtered through the mist and casting a golden glow in the river and sky. Once again we would board the boat for our morning adventure, this time to visit Cocha Camungo, a small patch of land once separated by a river channel but now attached and with a remnant oxbow wetland. This patch of land has a yet another canopy tower, our third and last tower that we'd visit for this tour. However, before heading to Cocha Camungo, we first had to head to another lodge to pick up a key to open the gate that would allow us ascend the tower. It seemed odd having a gated tower quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but Cocha Camungo is owned by one operator, and provides access to other operators for a small fee. For us, we each had to pay $50 USD, which we had done so in advance. On our way to pick up the key we also picked up a number of good birds over and along the river. Some of these included Bat Falcon (4), Roadside Hawk, Pied Lapwing, Mealy Parrot, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, and Eastern Kingbird (30).

Gorgeous sunrise on Rio Madres de Dios.

After picking up the key, we made our way to Cocha Camungo where we disembarked and walked about 200-300m to the base of the tower. With the thoughts of yet another climb, Howard paused with Ole Blue II, possibly wondering if the climb was going to be worth it. Of course it would be! The trick to climbing these towers, or so it seemed, was to not think about how many stairs there were, but to simply look down and plod along slowly. It took mere minutes to get to the top, and while a bit out of breathe, the bird activity soon takes your mind off the matter. My first lifer for the day was Screaming Piha, which we actually saw on the trail heading toward the tower. Once up the tower, we quickly added Plumbeous Kite, Yellow-rumped Cacquie, and Magpie Tanager.

Another tower!

That's a lot of stairs.

The tower offered not only a view into the canopy of the forest, but also some good views of the oxbow wetland below. Subsequently, we tallied some wetland birds from the tower that might otherwise seem like strange species to have in the canopy. Some of these included Wattled Jacana, Ringed Kingfisher, Black-capped Donacobius, Pale-legged Hornero, Pale-eyed Blackbird (lifer), Horned Screamer, Spix's Guan (lifer), and Anhinga. In the canopy we had Pink-throated Becard (lifer), Sirystes, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-bellied Euphonia (lifer), Crane Hawk, Slate-colored Hawk (lifer), Opal-rumped Tanager, and Epaulet Oriole (lifer).

Amazing view of the forest canopy and Cocha Camungo wetlands.

After about two hours in the tower, we headed back down and made our way slowly along one of the trails to where we would be taken onto the oxbow via a small pontoon. Along the way we added Black-faced Dacnis, Thick-billed Euphonia, White-winged Shrike-Tanager (lifer), Tawny-crowned Greenlet (lifer), Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Dusky-throated Antshrike (lifer), Elegant Woodcreeper (lifer), Red-necked Woodpecker (lifer), and White-necked Thrush (lifer). We boarded the pontoon at about 9:30am, and it was hot. The pontoon was covered with black rubber, atop of which were four plastic garden chairs bolted to the base. The pontoon had no protection from the sun, and the heat was unrelenting. We were all wearing rubber boots, which came off in a hurry as our feet quite literally began to cook. I was thankful that I had brought my umbrella, as I used this as a means to provide some shade for my head and back; the sweat dripping into my eyes was another matter. Our first new bird was Tui Parakeet (lifer), followed quickly by eight Purus Jacamar (lifer), a very boisterous and sociable species. Next up was Straight-billed Woodcreeper (lifer), Ladder-tailed Nightjar, and a very cooperative Azure Gallinule (lifer). We then were able to get good looks at Spotted Tody-Flycatcher (lifer), and a brief glimpse of two Orange-cheeked Parakeets that blasted by offering minimal, but tickable, views.

Exploring Cocha Camungo wetlands from a pontoon.

Back on land, we made our way back to the main boat. We added just one new bird for the morning, which was White-chinned Woodcreeper. On our way back to the lodge to return the key we spotted Orinoco Goose resting on a log. This was one of our target birds for the region, and we were pleased to tick it off. The bird also cooperated for a photo, allowing us close approach and some good shots. A similarly cooperative Large-billed Tern resting on a partially submerged log also permitted close approach and some good photos. We arrived back at Manu Wildlife Centre at about 11:30am, where we were able to have a quick shower before lunch. Having a shower was somewhat pointless, as the heat of the day caused us to sweat so much that we were just as wet outside the shower as when we were in it. Following lunch it was nap time, as bird activity was very suppressed.

Mud, water and a 5-inch balance beam on a boat. Extreme birding?

Orinoco Goose, one of the more difficult target birds.

Large-billed Tern. Indeed it is.

At 2:45pm we gathered once again to bird the local trails. Birding was very slow, but we added some good species considering the heat of the late afternoon. My first lifer was Amazonian Pygmy-Owl, which took at least 20 minutes to pin-down as its call echoed through the canopy. The next lifer was Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper, followed shortly after by Black-bellied Cuckoo. A bit later on we added White-crested Spadebill (lifer) and Black-tailed Leaftosser (lifer). We ended the day with Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Creamy-breasted Thrush, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Golden-crowned Spadebill, and White-necked Thrush.

Species seen today: 97
Lifers seen today: 26
Cumulative species for the trip: 508
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 231

Peru: November 27-29, 2015

November 27, 2015

While moving from place to place on a regular basis is a great way to see the broader diversity of birds in a region, staying more than one night in the same place once in a while is a welcome break. For two nights we would stay at the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, which meant that for today, we didn't need to pack everything up. Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge is situated in a very pleasant, temperate mountain location, and the property is divided into a series of cabins and a main dining/relaxing hall. Staying at this lodge was the first of several nights in a row where we would have to consider the possibility of malaria-carrying mosquitos. Subsequently, we each started our doses of malarone yesterday, and would continue taking them for the next two weeks. I don't recall seeing any mosquitos in my room; in fact, the only thing I do recall sharing my room with was a couple of good-sized cockroaches. Mosquitos or not, I was happy to have slept under a net.

At 4:30am my alarm seemingly screamed that it was once again time to get up, and by 5:00am we had all assembled in the dining hall by the illumination of our flashlights for breakfast. But there was no breakfast...either the cooks slept in or there was a mis-communication about the time. It didn't matter that much though, as we did manage to get some food by 5:30am and we were on our way by 6:00am. As daybreak came at the lodge, our first birds were Bananaquit, Russet-backed Oropendola, Blue-gray Tanager, and Sparkling Violetear. From the lodge we drove up hill, back from where we had come yesterday. Our first stop was at 1,735m elevation, at 6:18am. There was a lot of bird activity, with highlights including Saffron-crowned Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Slaty Tanager (lifer), Beryl-spangled Tanager, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Marbled-faced Bristle-Tyrant, and Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher (lifer).

Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge

Our second stop was at 1,760m, at 7:48am. We only spent a few minutes here, as we got our target bird, White-eared Solitaire (lifer), almost immediately. We then moved further uphill to 1,880m, but dipped on whatever it was we were trying to get. From here, we turned around and slowly started to make our way back. We stopped again a bit further down, at 1,870m, and while that doesn't seem like much of a change from the previous stop, the birding went from nothing to something in a hurry. In about 55 minutes we tallied 16 species, including Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Azara's Spinetail, Versicolored Barbet, Buff-thighed Puffleg (lifer), and Pearled Treerunner. Our next stop was at 1,700m at 10:02am, and while I didn't add any lifers here, the birding was still very good with additions such as Bronze-green Euphonia, Three-striped Warbler, and Golden-collared Honeycreeper.

By 11:00am the temperature was warming quickly and bird activity was diminishing. We therefore decided to head back to the lodge and spend a bit of time around the feeders before having lunch. Just before heading into the grounds we checked a patch of forest just uphill from the parking area for Slaty Gnateater, and within just a few minutes of broadcasting its' call we able to get great looks of this bird. Back at the lodge we had about 30 minutes to spare before lunch, and while we tallied an impressive list of hummingbirds, including Wedge-billed Hummingbird (lifer), we also saw several Common Wooly Monkey. Following lunch it was siesta time, as bird activity had slumped considerably.

At 3:00pm we departed Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge and headed uphill to Manu Lodge, just a few minutes away. Near Manu Lodge was a makeshift hide on the side of the road, which provided access to viewing an actual Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. The hide was held together with minimalist materials, and perched precariously on the road bank. It looked as though, at any moment, the entire thing could topple down, sending whomever stood upon its narrow platform to no uncertain form of serious injury. Despite my fulsome risk assessment, I ascertained that in all probability our risk of a catastrophic end to our birding adventure was slim, and so we proceeded, nimbly moving onto the platform and keeping or mass as close to the back rather than the front. Upon arrival, just one male bird was present; it was not difficult to miss, as its fire-engine red plumage radiated in a near indescribable way. The males plumage is so gaudy and exaggerated that no matter how long you look at the bird, you would swear that its head consists of just one eye and no beak. Over the course of our 15 minute visit, we observed four males in total.

Male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock at lek

'The Gang' at the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek viewing blind.

For the next two and a half hours we birded the road above Manu Lodge, but it was slow going. Birds were few and far between, and boredom soon set in. An occasional waterfall provided some visual relief, but even that couldn't stave the boredom. Subsequently, we had to create our own entertainment, and so Simon decided to give Howard's blue chair an unwanted bath. Perhaps the one reprieve we got from goofing around near waterfalls was that we found the nest of a Green-fronted Lancebill, which after a few minutes of waiting gave us excellent views. Other birds for the afternoon included Spotted Tanager, Spotted Barbtail, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Golden-olive Woodpecker.

A waterfall.

Simon giving 'Ole Blue" a rinse in a waterfall...poor Howard!

As we neared the end of our day, I did manage to squeak out one more lifer, which was Variable Antshrike. I was also able to get a photo of Masked Trogon, which sat patiently at the side of the road. As the sun set we moved further uphill to an owl stakeout. It's funny how nighttime takes so long to occur when you wait for it, but by 6:20pm it was dark enough to broadcast the call of Rufescent Screech-Owl. It took only a few minutes for a single bird to appear, which we got fairly good looks at. We returned to the lodge for 7:00pm, had dinner, compiled our notes, and went to bed. Another good day, and tomorrow we head into the Amazon basin.

Masked Trogon

Species seen today: 64
Lifers seen today: 8
Cumulative species for the trip: 259
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 101

November 28, 2015

In 2008, when I made my first trip to the tropics, I never would have imagined that just eight years later I'd be in southern Peru and heading to the Amazon basin. I knew in 2008 that a fire had been set in my birding belly, and that my quest for birds in Central and South American had only just begun. But when I first read about the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru in 2010, I truly felt that this incredibly biodiverse speck on the globe would rank in the unfortunate category of places I would never get to visit. Thankfully, I can say I was wrong. When viewing the area from Google Earth it appears irreproachable; a vast green wilderness with hardly a scare on the landscape. On the ground, it isn't much different, with only a few roads and small villages dotting the proximate landscape. The road we were on was the main road, and it was narrow and unpaved; there was no AAA in sight! The remoteness of the reserve is difficult to describe, but it has taken us seven days to get to the edge of it from Lima. Today, we descend from the Cock-of-Rock Lodge to the town of Atalaya, which marks the end of the road and our transition to river boat...the only way to enter the heart of the reserve.


A typical view while birding the eastern Andes

Today we woke at 4:30am, had coffee and some toast at 5:00am, and started birding around the lodge at 5:20am. The birding was remarkably good, and over the next 2.5 hours we tallied an impressive list of birds. Our first bird of the day was Olivaceous Siskin, followed quickly by Russet-backed Oropendola, Speckled Chachalaca, and Tropical Parula. My first lifer of the day was Two-banded Warbler, which showed well. We then added Ash-browed Spinetail, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Streaked Xenops, Dusky-green Oropendola, Golden Tanager, and a couple of familiar North American species, Scarlet Tanager and Swainson's Thrush.

My next lifer had a name longer than the species itself; Yellow-breasted Warbling-Antbird. This was followed shortly after by Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Stripe-chested Antwren, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, Scale-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant, and Orange-eared Tanager. With only a few minutes remaining before we had to begin our journey to Atalaya, we added a few more good birds including Purple Honeycreeper, Lanceolated Monklet (lifer), Yellow-rumped Antwren (lifer), and another two North American familiarities: Hepatic Tanager and Canada Warbler.

At a little after 8:00am we piled into the van and continued the ever-winding, narrow, and bumpy road down hill. Our next stop was not until 9:38am, where our guide selectively decided to stop and try for some target species. I only added Short-billed Chlorospingus as a lifer here; I'm not sure what the "short-billed" is in reference too, as there is no long-billed variety of this species for comparison. Back into the van, we travelled for another 20 minutes and tried for some other targets; no lifers here, but good views of Black-billed Treehunter. Back in the van again, we travelled for another 15 minutes and stopped at 1,030m to try our luck at more targets. This time the payoff was good, as I was able to add three lifers from just the six species we saw: Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Yellow-crested Tanager, and Golden-bellied Warbler.

Descending below 1,000m we could feel the temperature and humidity increasing; a necessary tradeoff between decreasing comfort and increasing the species list. Our next stop was at 880m, in a small homestead that seemed deserted and overgrown. We knew immediately that this location had some good bird activity, as birds could be seen and heard actively feeding on fruiting trees and moving between feeding areas. My first lifer at this stop was Rusty-fronted Tody-Flycatcher, and over the course of 45 minutes was followed by three other lifers, White-banded Swallow, Fine-barred Piculet, and Short-crested Flycatcher. Other good birds at this site included Golden-tailed Sapphire, King Vulture, Piratic Flycatcher, and Magpie Tanager.

Our next stop was an unplanned one, forced only by getting a flat tire. The unfortunate part of this stop is that this flat tire was our spare; the first flat occurred two days ago and we'd had no opportunity to have it fixed. The driver was going to fix the spare in Atalaya, after dropping us off, but now we needed plan B. A few miles back we passed through a small village that had tire repair services, but getting back to the village, with the tires, we thought would prove challenging. Fortunately, it wasn't that bad, as a helpful Peruvian came along and agreed to take our driver and the two flats tires to the village for repair. I only assumed he'd bring them back.

Our flat tire occurred at 12:40pm, and given the predicament we figured we'd be in this for the long haul. Subsequently, we broke out the picnic table, chairs, and food and waited. We were now at 560m, and so it was especially hot. To add insult to injury, we also weren't parked at a particularly good location for birding, possibly symbolized by an all-black tarantula that I saw crossing the road when we first stopped. Nevertheless, I did manage to add two lifers: Fork-tailed Palm-Swift and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw. A couple of other good birds included Long-tailed Tyrant, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, and Dusky-headed Parakeet. At about 1:50pm our driver returned with two functional tires (functional meaning inflated; the tread, or lack thereof, was something to be desired).


When you get your second flat in two days, you know you have a long wait.

We arrived at Atalaya at 3:13pm...it really was the end of the road. We unloaded the van and poor Howard had to bid farewell to Ole Blue, which was destined for the return trip home to Wayquecha Biological Research Station. We were not coming back to Atalaya, as our journey was to proceed downstream along the Madre de Dios to Amazonia Lodge, the Manu Wildlife Centre, and Boca Colorado where we would then meet another van for our ground transportation to Puerto Maldonado. Howard was quite distraught about losing his seat, and the distress had caught the attention of our guide. Once again, a solution appeared, and it turned out to be the son of 'Ole Blue', 'Ole Blue II'. It took about 20 minutes to unload the van and pack everything into our boat, which was an impressively-large covered, motorized canoe. This river was huge!

At road's end in Atalaya, we must say goodbye to 'Ole Blue'. Howard weeps.

But wait, 'Ole Blue' has a son. Howard rejoices.

As we piled into the boat we added few species in the village, and the only new species for me was White-winged Swallow. The boat ride to Amazonia Lodge from Atalaya was short, taking only about 10 minutes. It was a pleasant ride nonetheless, and the occasional rush through some whitewater rapids was exhilarating. Conditions could not have been better.

Boating down Rio Madres de Dios on a beautiful sunny day...remember this image.

Amazonia Lodge is located at 450m elevation, on the bank of the Madres de Dios. As we arrived, the boat was carefully maneuvered toward the bank, and as we each exited we balanced along a narrow plank of wood to terra firme. It was a about a 400m walk from the boat launch to our cabins, which were arranged in a long row facing an expansive garden dotted with a few large trees and many flowering shrubs and plants. We spent about the first hour simply enjoying the view, resting our weary bodies in the chairs overlooking the garden. Birds were everywhere, and it took only seconds to get my first lifer here, the Red-capped Cardinal. Other birds included Black-billed Thrush, Masked-crimson Tanager, Russet-backed Oropendola, Silver-beaked Tanager, Gould's Jewelfront, Rufous-crested Coquet, White-necked Jacobin, and another lifer, the Blue-tailed Emerald. It was also amusing watching a Gray-necked Wood-Rail wander about the garden like a domestic chicken.

Amazonia Lodge in the Manu Biosphere Reserve

Red-capped Cardinal

At about 4:30pm we were led by Alex around one of the trails to do some late afternoon birding. We first ventured over to a small wetland where we were immediately greeted by 17 punk-rock birds of the world, Hoatzin (lifer). A quick glance down the wetland and I picked up a Sungrebe (lifer), a particularly difficult bird to see being one that tends to hide very well in the wetland vegetation. After having good views of the Hoatzin, and watching their cumbersome movements in the trees, we then picked up a Pale-legged Hornero, three Black-fronted Nunbirds (lifer), Blue-headed Parrot, Blue-throated Piping-Guan (lifer), and Squirrel Cuckoo. A bit further along the trail we picked up Swallow-winged Puffbird (lifer), Blue-crowned Trogon (lifer), Cobalt-winged Parakeet (lifer), Silvered Antbird (lifer), Ruddy Pigeon, Turquoise Tanager (lifer), and Bluish-slate Antshrike (lifer). As the last bit of light faded, a Plumbeous Kite flew overhead, presumably heading to a roost site. We arrived back at our cabins at 6:00pm, and had dinner at 7:00pm. Despite having a flat tire and travelling quite some distance, we had an impressive species count of 103 species, of which 29 were lifers for me. I attributed the good count to the range of elevations we covered, and the increasing diversity of species as we moved further into the Amazon basin.

Species seen today: 103
Lifers seen today: 29
Cumulative species for the trip: 337
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 130

November 29, 2015

One of the things the Amazon doesn't seem to lack are birds with 'ant' in their name; antshrikes, antbirds, antwrens, antpittas, ant-tanagers, antpipits. There was certainly a high probability of seeing something 'antish', and we were all more than ready for some 'ant-ticks'. We started the day early, with the alarm ringing at 4:30am, breakfast at 5:00am (wow, that's some strong coffee), and on the trail by 5:30am. Our destination this morning was a canopy tower, which is just what it sounds like...a tower that climbs into the canopy offering unique views and an opportunity to see canopy-dwelling birds at eye-level, thus reducing birders' neck and subsequent trips to the chiropractor. Before arriving at the tower, we first had to make our way through the forest, gradually climbing the hill slope to where the tower was perched. Our first birds of the day were garden birds, and in the faintest of morning light we added Black-billed Thrush, White-necked Jacobin, Piratic Flycatcher, and many of the other familiar birds that seemed to hang around the lodge permanently. The other distinct feature on the trail was 'Ole Blue II'.

Trecking through the forest with 'Ole Blue II'

Soon after entering the forest Alex was on the lookout for new species, and he quickly delivered. First up was Pygmy Antwren (lifer), followed shortly thereafter by Chestnut-tailed Antbird (lifer). We then had Black-faced Antbird, Collared Trogon, and Reddish Hermit (lifer). After that, a small gang of Pale-winged Trumpeter's came walking down the trail. They seemed utterly baffled by our presence, and unsure about whether there was room for both of us on the trail, each bird came down the trail, looked at us, then appeared to make a conscious decision that it was best if we kept our distance. Thus, they walked back up the trail for 20 meters or so, then disappeared into the undergrowth.

Pale-winged Trumpeter...such a strange looking bird

Once at the tower, the only hard part of the hike was the climb up the rickety set of metal stairs. The entire structure was not built for the faint of heart, and the three guy-wires that supposedly provided vertical support had more slack in them than a pensioner's pair of trousers. Having confirmed our life insurance policies were up-to-date, we proceeded to ascend, choosing not to count the number of steps but having our thighs remind us that there more than there we would have liked. At the top, we placed our packs toward the centre and tethered them to a guard rail. We then took our respective positions, and milled about the 6 ft by 8 ft platform trying to focus on finding birds rather than think about what would happen if the entire structure collapsed.

Hi atop a canopy tower...not for the faint-of-heart, unless you need canopy birds.

The tower offered spectacular views of the upper canopy, including the view in the image below. This particular view offered great views of macaws, of which we had Scarlet (lifer), Chestnut-fronted, Military, and Blue-and-Yellow. The crown of the tree we were in also produced an incredible variety of birds, if not for the nearly two hours it took to accumulate them. Some of the species included Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant (lifer), Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher (lifer), Striolated Puffbird (lifer), Green-backed Trogon (lifer), and Masked Tanager (lifer). A bit further afield we added Tiny Hawk, Olive Oropendola, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, and White Hawk. As the bird activity decreased, and the canopy flies increased, we descended the steps to continue our walk on the trail; I'd never seen Simon move so quickly so as to get his boots firmly planted on solid earth.

Why canopy towers exist...unobstructed views.

And when you're in the canopy, you get to see birds like this, the Striolated Puffbird, up close.

As we progressed along the trail our next bird was a Rufescent Ground-Cuckoo. A spectacular look, which instantly triggered recourse from Simon and Howard regarding a less than spectacular look I had of this species in Panama. At that time, I was confident that the blurred, shadowy object that disappeared from the edge of the trail and into thick undergrowth, but which Simon exclaimed merely a second earlier was a Rufescent Ground-Cuckoo, was tickable. For the millisecond that I saw the bird, it had the shape, profile, and size all going for it. I think some birders have ticked birds on much less. But back to this sighting. As an obligate of ant swarms, this bird showed well for several seconds as an ant swarm was just finishing crossing the trail. And a few seconds was all we could afford, because other birds also associated with the ant swarm needed our attention too. These included Hairy-crested Antbird (lifer), Sooty Antbird (lifer), and Plain Antvireo.

As we worked our way further along the trail we continued to add new birds, even if they weren't all in quick succession. First up was McConnel's Flycatcher, followed by Black Antbird, Ringed Antpipit (a very sharp-looking bird), Red-throated Caracara, Round-tailed Manakin, and Plain-winged Antshrike. As we descended back toward the lodge, we added Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Golden-bellied Warbler, Fasciated Antwren, and Lemon-throated Barbet (lifer). Back at the gardens I added two more lifers: Hauxwell's Thrush and Speckled Spinetail. At 12:00pm it was lunch time, and by 1:00pm it was nap time. The heat and humidity was certainly taking its toll, and a good nap helps to replenish energy levels.

At 3:00pm we gathered on the main balcony to do a late afternoon walk around the river trails. Before departing we first tallied the usual suspects at the bird feeders, as well as one lifer, the Sapphire-spangled Emerald. Then, once on the trail, the first new species to be added to the list was Gray Antwren. We then added Little Woodpecker, Speckled Chachalaca, White-browed Antbird (lifer), and Bluish-fronted Jacamar. The heat of the day had definitely suppressed the bird activity, and generally speaking it was slow going. Nevertheless, Alex earned his stripes by knowing exactly where and when to look for, or broadcast the call of, different species. Subsequently, for the next hour and a half, he managed to get seven more lifers for me, which included Scarlet-hooded Barbet, Chestnut-capped Puffbird, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Purplish Jay, Gray-fronted Dove, Amazonia Antpitta, and White-lined Antbird. We also added such trip ticks as Golden-bellied Euphonia, Capped Heron, and Gray-capped Flycatcher.

We returned to the lodge for 5:45pm, compiled our notes, had dinner at 7:00pm, and went to bed by 8:30pm. Tomorrow we would continue our journey by boat, heading downstream for nearly 7 hours to the Manu Wildlife Centre. There is a very good chance that tomorrow's destination will be the most remote place I've ever visited.

The Hoatzin, with its bizarre plumage and colours, makes the Trumpeter look normal.

Species seen today: 82
Lifers seen today: 35
Cumulative species for the trip: 395
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 165

Peru: November 24-26, 2015

November 24, 2015

Once again, wake up time was 5:00am. Simon was feeling utterly miserable from the altitude, but put on brave face to squeeze in a bit of birding. From the hacienda, located in Tampumayu, we took a short drive up a small side road that overlooked a river. In about 1 hour and 30 minutes we found all of our target birds, which included Black-backed Grosbeak, White-winged Black-Tyrant, Bare-faced Ground-Dove, and Pale-tailed Canastero. We also added Blue-and-Yellow Tanager, Chiguanco Thrush, and White-collared Swift. We returned to Tampumayu for a quick breakfast, but we were back on the road by 7:30am.

Birding the upper east slope of the Andes 

Although Tampumayu was at 830 m elevation, and the initial part of our drive was downhill, we soon found ourselves rapidly climbing back up the mountains. By 9:40am we were above 3,000 m, where we found Rusty Flowerpiercer and Golden-billed Saltator. At 10:00am we were at one of Barry's favourite birding locations, at 3,630 m, a few miles from Abancay. Here I added several lifers, including Black-throated Flowerpiercer, Purple-backed Thornbill (initially denounced when I was the only who saw it, but shortly thereafter it was confirmed by everyone and apologies flowed like waterfalls...at least that's how I remember it), Apurimac Brushfinch, and Creamy-crested Spinetail. Other good birds at this location included Red-crested Cotinga, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Great Sapphirewing, and Tyrian Metaltail.

Traversing the upper grasslands of the Andes 

We spent the afternoon making our way to Cusco, but along the way Barry had some key locations pinpointed for targeting some trip ticks. Slightly after 12:00pm, not far off highway 35, we entered Santuario Nacional Ampay, where we spent about 3 hours netting six lifers for my list: White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Apurimac Spinetail, Rusty-fronted Spinetail, Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch, Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant, and Buff-breasted Earthcreeper. Before we ended our day in Cusco, Barry insisted we stop at some Inca ruins to look at some neatly arranged rocks; there were no birds here, and Howard found a novel use for at least one rock. Once at Cusco, Simon retired for the day, still feeling wrecked from altitude sickness. This evening marked the end of the tour with Barry as our leader, and tomorrow our new leader would be Alex Torres.

Spending 10 minutes to absorb Inca culture. No birds here!

"Just a quick rest", says Howard


Species seen today: 44
Lifers seen today: 15
Cumulative species for the trip: 149
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 67

November 25, 2015

Because of transportation logistics, today we were able to sleep in until 5:40am, have a delightfully late breakfast at 7:00am, and depart form Cusco at 7:40am. Our first destination for birding was Huacarpay Lakes, which was located about an hour east of Cusco. This wetland was a wonderful site for birding and we quickly added a good variety of species, including Many-colored Rush-Tyrant (lifer), Plumbeous Rail (lifer), Yellow-winged Blackbird (lifer), Wren-like Rushbird (lifer), Blue-and-Yellow Tanager, Andean Duck, Bearded Mountaineer (lifer), and Yellow-billed Teal. After about an hour, we started making our way further east, but not before adding Andean Flicker (lifer) to the trip list.

Andean Flicker

Unlike several of my previous birding tours, this tour had some days with particularly long drives to get from A to B. Today was one of those days, and we spent much of the day making our way to the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station. Along the way we had few stops to look for birds, but to add insult to injury we had nearly an hour's wait for road construction, and then nearly a 45 minute wait for a bus that was stuck in a creek. There was a bridge that crossed this creek, but recent rains had caused a portion of the approach to wash-out. Subsequently, vehicles traversed the creek about 100m upstream, up until when a bus attempted this and became grounded. Several people were on site, but we were quite literally in the middle of nowhere. One group of people was attempting to heave a very large boulder into a gap where the road washed out next to the bridge. Another group was trying to rock the bus free by quickly throwing rocks and earth beneath the wheels. We took the opportunity to do some roadside birding, but we were convinced we'd be held up for several hours.

Remarkably, it only took 45 minutes for those working on the bridge to create a makeshift fix, and the line of 8-10 cars, including our tour van, were able to successfully cross. During the 45 minutes we did have, we did manage to add some good birds, including Scaled Metaltail (lifer), Pale-legged Warbler (lifer), Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, and Rufous-capped Thornbill (lifer). It was now late afternoon, and we only had time for one last stop before arriving at Wayqecha. This stop was at the summit of the Carreterra a Manu road, which when viewed in Google Earth (-13.2009, -71.6269) shows a distinct transition zone from dry to wet forest. Here we added Sierran Elaenia, Brown-bellied Swallow, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Moustached Flowerpiercer (lifer), and White-throated Tyrannulet.

How not to cross a creek

We arrived at Wayqecha at 4:55pm, and as final daylight faded we had just 10 minutes to squeeze a few birds in, including Shining Sunbeam, Moustached Flowerpiercer, and Black-throated Flowerpiercer. Once dark, we then drove a few miles up and down the main road looking for night birds, which we were successful in finding a female Swallow-tailed Nightjar. We returned to the lodge, had dinner, compiled our notes, and headed to bed. Tomorrow we were to spend much of the day birding the Carreterra a Manu road to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge.

Lush east slope vegetation near Wayqecha

Simon, near one of the rustic research station cabins at Wayqecha


Species seen today: 53
Lifers seen today: 11
Cumulative species for the trip: 172
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 78

November 26, 2015

No time to waste today, as the alarm was ringing at 4:30am and we were on our way at 5:00am for some pre-breakfast birding. Our focus was on the research station and the main road which backtracked for about a mile to the summit. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and a big change from the previous evening which was cold, grey, and misty. Within minutes of day break there was incredible bird activity, and quickly we notched up a healthy species list with common birds such as Great Thrush, House Wren, Shining Sunbeam, White-collared Swift, and Band-tailed Pigeon. Further along the road the tanagers began to show themselves, and we quickly added Golden-collared Tanager, Blue-and-Yellow Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. My first lifer for the day was a flock of ten Andean Parakeets, which showed nicely against the deep blue morning sky. We then added two species of swift: White-collared and Chestnut-collared. The next four species additions were all lifers, but they took some effort to obtain. First up was White-collared Jay, which after five minutes of first seeing them eventually gave us great views. We then added Pale-footed Swallow, followed shortly after by a small group of Black-faced Brushfinch. Our most challenging species was Hooded Tinamou, which was first detected by its distinct call. At first we weren't going to try to find it, but it was so temptingly close that the group urged Alex to at least try. In total, we spent at least 30 minutes creeping into the undergrowth and using call playback in an attempt to lure the bird closer. Finally, in what no doubt looked like a convoluted Yoga position, we were all able to peer through the tiniest of gaps in the vegetation and see the bird at close range. Definitely bird of the day! So far.

At 8:00am we were back at the research station for a quick breakfast, and by 8:40am we were ready to depart. First however, we had to deal with an interesting medical challenge. Prior to commencing our Peruvian adventure, Howard hurt his back in the UK and it was causing him some difficulty on the trip. You might recall the picture of Howard sitting on a rock at the Inca ruins; this was in fact a common sight as Howard needed to sit regularly to reduce the strain. Howard indicated this morning that his back was giving him quite a bit of pain, and would likely not venture far from the van. In having to do so, Howard would no doubt miss some good birds, and so our guide Alex searched for a solution. Minutes later, the solution arrived...a plastic blue chair that was to now become a permanent element of our excursions, and a permanent source of entertainment for Simon (ok, I was mildly amused by it too). So now, at each stop where we did some birding, the 'blue chair' slowly garnered its infamous qualities. In the picture below, Simon has carefully placed a leaf on Howard's hat, adding aesthetic value to the image.


 The infamous 'blue chair'

Ok, back to birding. Following breakfast our first stop was just down the road, at 2,900m elevation. Our target species here was Trilling Tapaculo, which we managed to get quite quickly (15 minutes) considering the generally stubborn nature of tapaculos showing themselves. At our next stop we added Supercilliaried Hemispingus (the bird name with the most vowels), Cinnamon Flycatcher, Grass-green Tanager, White-banded Tyrannulet, Barred Fruiteater, and Andean Solitaire. Further down the road, at 2,550m, we coaxed out with call playback a pair of Red-and-White Antpitta, a highlight for everyone. A bit further down the road we added Blue-banded Toucanet (lifer), Andean Guan, and Golden-headed Quetzal. Our final stop, at 2,410m, before having lunch, yielded two more lifers: Dusky-green Oropendola and Inca Flycatcher. We also had Mountain Wren and Citrine Warbler at this location, which were both new trip-tick birds.

Blue-banded Toucanet

After our roadside lunch, we continued birding our way down the mountain valley. Along the way we came across yet more road construction. Depicted in the photo below, several workers were using nothing more than shovels, pick-axes, and wheelbarrows to repair a precariously steep and unstable road bank. Much of the repair included placing cuttings from trees and shrubs as a base to the road, and covering those cuttings with loose gravel and soil. By no means did this provide any confidence in road safety, and it was best to keep to the left as much as possible.

We spent the next three hours birding between 2,300m and 1,880m, stopping at six different locations along the way. Four of the six stops produced a lifer for me, including Bolivian Tyrannulet, Versicolored Barbet, White-crowned Tapaculo, and Black-streaked Puffbird. Other good birds included Three-striped Warbler, Capped Conebill, Long-tailed Sylph, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and Andean Motmot. Just before arriving at our lodge we by-passed the Manu Cloud Forest Lodge. Here we saw a stunning male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. At our lodge, the aptly-named Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, we had about 20 minutes of daylight left to chalk up a few species at the hummingbird feeders, including Booted Racket-tail, Sparkling Violetear, Violet-fronted Brilliant, Speckled Hummingbird, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, and Golden-tailed Sapphire. We also added Bolivian Squirrel, one of few mammals we saw during our tour.

High Andes road repair...shovels and wheelbarrows, no machinery.

Species seen today: 60
Lifers seen today: 15
Cumulative species for the trip: 222
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 93