Thursday 5 October 2017

Brazil - Atlantic Rainforest

I am recently back from Brazil, where I spent nine days guiding the Ornitholidays group. We stayed at Regua, a nature reserve not far from Rio de Janeiro, a former cattle ranch now beautifully restored as tropical forest. It's an inspiring place where hundreds of thousands of native trees have been planted, and local schools are given guided tours. Only 7% remains of the original Atlantic Forest - which contains a great number of endemic species (not only birds of course). 

 As a contrast to the ongoing afforestation at Regua, one of our days out was to Carmo, in much drier country to the north beyond Teresopolis. My photo shows how much of the original forest looks now: bare hillsides with deep erosion gullies and only scrubby remnants of dry forest. Yet still great wildlife clings on here!

 One example from Carmo is this pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants, seen here in noisy display. We enjoyed many other restricted-range species here, such as Three-toed Jacamar and Serra Antwren. 

Here is the group in the best section of dry forest at Carmo, waiting for a White-collared Foliage-gleaner to appear. In the foreground is Adilei, a top-notch bird-guide who recognizes every squeak and whistle and can imitate most of them. 

 Back to Regua: the forests are full of tanagers, antbirds, manakins, with smaller numbers of toucans, motmots and trogons. This Green-headed Tanager is just one example, seen from one of the many excellent tracks and trails on the reserve. Though brightly coloured, it retains excellent camouflage in the canopy. 

 On another day out, we watched this Scale-throated Hermit as it hovered on the mountain slopes of Macae de Cima. Hermits can generally be recognized by their long curved bills and face pattern. Many species lack the iridescence typical of most hummingbirds. 

Rough grassland and open, dry forest (cerrado) is the habitat of the Red-legged Seriema: a pair of them (with silent, fully grown youngster) treated us to an ear-splitting  territorial display: definitely a decibel prize-winner. Seriemas are a family on their own: most closely related to cranes, but bearing a superficial resemblance to the Secretary-bird of Africa. Both are long-legged ground dwellers that nest in trees.

Burrowing Owls are common on the farmland around Regua. A close relative of our Little Owls, they have a huge range from British Columbia to Southern Argentina and Chile, excluding the whole Amazon basin.

 The lodge at Regua is a wonderfully informal place to stay, more like a large family home than a hotel. It's the kind of place you don't need to lock doors, and where I can leave telescope and tripod out on the verandah day and night. Many thanks to Nicholas, Raquel and Tom Locke and their staff for a great stay.

 Though not normally a city-dweller, I enjoyed spending my last 24 hours in Brazil in the magnificent city of Rio. Here the long sweep of Copacabana Beach can be seen from my viewpoint on Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf). My thanks to bird-photographers Mike Creighton (tyrant, hermit and seriema) and Richard Swinbank (tanager and owl).

Monday 12 June 2017


I am recently back from Finland, where I co-led the Ornitholidays tour. We spent most of our days in the Oulu and Kuusamo areas, just south of the Arctic Circle. We were surprised by the lateness of the season: Oulu Bay was still  full of ice on 20 May, and many inland lakes were still frozen. One result was that Waxwings were more visible than usual - they were an everyday bird for us in the north. 

My co-leader Pirita worked very hard to find us the special birds we hoped to see. Here, at a sunny lunch break near Kuusamo, we were discussing where to go next. Unfortunately, a shortage of voles in the area made owls hard to find. We had one spectacular success.....
Pirita led us unerringly into a pinewood where this magnificent Great Grey Owl was spending a solitary spring, with no mate and few rodents to eat. Luckily it was settled in its daytime roost and not perturbed by our presence. I took this photo on my phone, through the scope.

The spruce and pine forests of the Kuusamo area are renowned for grouse populations: this male Capercaillie allowed a close approach. With snow only just melting, they were having a late breeding season this year. 

The Siberian Jay is often elusive in June since they retreat into spruce forests to breed. They survive all the year in the far north, becoming confiding around human habitations, like their close cousin the Grey Jay (or whiskyjack) in the Canadian north. 

Finland is a land of thousands of lakes. Where they were beginning to thaw, large numbers of duck often gathered on the ice-edge. The birches were still not ready to bud even in late May.  

Most of the duck were Teal and Goldeneye, with smaller numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders. There was antagonism among the drake Smew for territory, while the chestnut-headed females took no notice and continued preening. The wild songs of Greenshank and Wood Sandpipers were regular accompaniments to these scenes. Many thanks to Ross and Alan for the photos that were not mine.  

Monday 10 April 2017

Antarctica Feb-Mar 2017

Humpback Whales are often inquisitive - this one especially! It visited each of the zodiacs in turn. I had to resist the temptation of stroking the barnacles on its chin. (I wasn't using any zoom on my pocket Nikon Coolpix). This was just outside Orne Harbour, in the Gerlache Strait, on a cloudy day in February.   

Between the zodiacs you can see the top of the humpback's head, and under the water the white form of its left pectoral fin - which can grow to almost 5 metres in length. In my experience humpbacks are very gentle with small boats, sometimes swimming underneath them without touching them or alarming the passengers. 

Another day, another friendly humpback. Still no zoom on my lens! This time the kayaks were on the water too, and it swam between them too. How did I take the photo? Well, it was just a fluke! 

We had a few cloudless days during these two voyages, though generally it was cloudier than in November and December. Along the Antarctic Peninsula - our area of operations - the climate is warming, with an average of 90 days less sea-ice than a century ago. However, most other parts of the continent are south of the Antarctic Circle, and have a stable climate - i.e. seriously cold! 

Zodiac cruises may be for wildlife watching or just admiring the amazing ice formations that Antarctica throws at you everywhere. In this photo (click to enlarge), we are looking at another zodiac through a great hole in a huge iceberg. 

By the beginning of March, Gentoo Penguin chicks are almost fully grown. Here the chick - on the left - is making a polite request to its parent for another feed of regurgitated krill and fish. As the chicks begin to lose their down and moult into their first waterproof plumage, the adults stop feeding them. Hunger soon forces them to the water where they have to learn for themselves how to swim and catch food.

During an excursion to Hannah Point in the South Shetlands, we came across this Macaroni Penguin, one of three in a large colony of Chinstraps - one has its head visible in the bottom right. Although it's the world's most abundant penguin. most of its colonies are further north, and inaccessible (being on steep slopes of scree or tussock). Every year a few try to nest among Chinstraps in the South Shetlands.

A visit to an Antarctic Research Station is always popular. This is the bar of the Ukranian Vernadsky Station, formerly the British station Faraday, at 65 degrees south. The bar itself was built by a British carpenter, Keith Larratt, out of wood intended for a new dock. His work has ensured that visitors and residents have a warm welcome, with homemade vodka usually on offer. Famous as the base where the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, the scientists here continue important work in meteorology, atmospheric studies, zoology, etc. 

Finally, a look back to Christmas Day on the Vavilov deck. Ceilidh and Madeleine dance for the passengers while Julia and I play Morrison's Jig on fiddle and cunbus, a Turkish banjo-mandolin I bought in Istanbul in 1984. Many thanks to staff photographer Jeff Topham for sharing this image. The other photos are mine. 

Saturday 25 March 2017

Mexico January 2017

Clare and I had a great two-week holiday in Mexico. One of the highlights was escaping from our coastal resort near Puerto Vallarta and exploring inland with a hire-car. We stayed two nights in the small (and very picturesque) town of San Sebastian del Oueste, seen here just catching the first rays of morning sun. 

Just above the town is a hill, La Bufa, rising to 2400m, well forested in native pine and oak. A good track, much of it paved, leads right to the summit. We explored various altitudes and found the birding easy and productive. The lower slopes turned up species such as Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Mountain Trogon, and Black-vented Oriole. We even saw a Lesser Roadrunner, but it was too shy to stay for a photo. 

We spent most time between 2100 and 2200m. Here we found this White-eared Hummingbird, along with Red-headed Tanagers, Aztec Thrushes, Transvolcanic Jays and a covey of Long-tailed Wood-Partridge. Bunches of orange mistletoe attracted Acorn Woodpeckers and various orioles and tanagers. We often heard the bizarre songs of the Brown-backed Solitaire, but they remained hidden.

 Back at our coastal resort, good dry scrub-forest extends right to the shore, between the hotel developments. Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Royal Terns and Heerman's Gulls are always flying by.
Eight species of waders visited the rocky shores and sandy beaches below the hotel. They included Wilson's Plover and this Surfbird, one of a wintering flock of five. They come south from breeding grounds in Alaska to feed in the splash zone, like our Purple Sandpipers. 
Just up the road is the fishing village of Punta de Mita, where small boats go out to watch the Humpback Whales that breed in the bay. Judging from the frenzies of the Brown Pelicans and Heerman's Gulls, there's no shortage of fish: in some spots the surface of the sea seemed to be boiling!

Across the main road from the hotel, a quiet road leads inland which we called Bunting Road, since four species of buntings can be seen here, including the lovely endemic Orange-breasted. The orange-barked tree is the gumbo-limbo, (Bursera simaruba), often known as tourist tree for its peeling red bark! Walking here between 8 and 10 in the morning is still cool, and turns up different species on each visit. We have found 16 Mexican endemics along this road, though not all at once! 

Among the most common is Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, but I could equally well have chosen Yellow-winged Cacique. San Blas Jay, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Broad-billed Hummingbird and Citreoline Trogon are also regulars. More challenging are shy skulkers like Blue Mockingbird and Red-breasted Chat. 

Another endemic that we enjoyed watching were these Mexican Parrotlets, as they fed in an acacia. Usually they only appear as a tight flock whizzing past and calling. 

We also visited Rancho Primavera, an hour south of Puerto Vallarta at El Tuito, for two nights. Here we self-catered in a comfortable chalet near a lake. Our hostess Bonnie Jauregui made us feel very much at home and told us what birds to look out for. 

Primavera was the only place we found Russet-crowned Motmot posing for photos. It seemed to be a haven for wintering North American warblers - we saw 9 species. We also found the beautiful Rosy Thrush-Tanager turning the leaf-litter in the woodland here. 

This young Black-throated Magpie-Jay was a little too friendly, pulling my ear! It had been taken illegally from a nest, confiscated by the authorities and given to Bonnie to join the wild magpie-jays on the ranch. It also took a pen from my pocket and showed every sign of preferring human company to that of its own kind. Many thanks to Clare for the photos and for a great holiday!

Friday 20 January 2017

Antarctica through MY lens, part 2

Here are some of my images from the latest voyages. Better ones (taken by other passengers with fancier cameras and kindly shared) can be found in the blog below "Antarctica Nov 2016 - Jan 2017. 

Chinstrap on remote camera, Orne Harbour

Chinstraps on their highway up to the ridge above Orne Harbour. (click on image to enlarge)

The kitchen at Port Lockroy, just as it was in the 1950s when it was a British research station, studying ionospherics. It is now a historic monument, complete with post office, gift shop and Gentoo Penguin colony.

Two Gentoos hurry downhill from their nests to the sea for more krill.

 A Leopard Seal rests on an ice-floe as we start a zodiac cruise. Passengers are lining up ready to go down the gangway into the boats.

Zodiac cruises are just as much about admiring the ice as looking for wildlife. We had many calm, sunny days during November and December 2016.

A fiery sunset adds a splash of gold to the usual Antarctic colour spectrum of white, blue and black (where rock is exposed).

Adelies rest on a sunny floe with a huge ice-cliff behind.

Lonely Adelie!

We ended our last full day with a two spectacular days in West Falklands. Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatross nest together in tight mixed colonies. There are frequent squabbles between the masters of the air and their distant relatives which can't even fly!

 Our penguin scientists Melissa and Steve: Melissa is showing off her ring, soon after Steve's proposal among the seabird colonies of New Island!

Portrait of a Black-browed Albatross, Westpoint Island.

On January 6, most of the albatross chicks were about a month old. They will make their first flight at the beginning of April.