Monday, October 18, 2010

The Birdathon

It's over, and what a birdathon it was! Oliver's team, of which I was part this year, put in its best performance ever, ending with 208 species! Undoubtedly favorable weather was a factor in this success. Even though we missed several common species, we also found many birds that are harder to get, including even a new species for the country! Our team, which consisted of Oliver Komar, Benjamin Rivera, Roselvy Juárez and myself, birded western El Salvador for 48 hours. Exhausting as it was, it was also great fun and 100% worth the effort.

The bird at the top of this post is a female Great Curassow, one of four endangered bird species found in El Salvador. We got this bird Sunday morning in National Park El Imposible, the only place in El Salvador where this species is found.

La Hachadura
We started Saturday morning at daybreak in the fields near La Hachadura, a village on the border with Guatemala. Off to a good start, we got many target species here, as well as a few unexpected ones. Before breakfast, we got Double-striped Thick-knee (17 individuals, one pictured above), Solitary Sandpiper (4), Wilson's Snipe (4), and that 'new' species for the country: Purple Martin. Actually, I thought I saw and photographed a Purple Martin a few weeks ago in National Park Walter Deininger, which I wrote about here. At the time, I didn't think too much of that sighting, until Oliver alerted me to the fact that this species has not yet been documented to occur in El Salvador. Saturday morning, in much better light, we saw an adult male followed by a male and female fly over. I got a photo of that male, but the photo came out as a blur and identification is not possible from that photo... This time, however, the observers made the identification in the field and were in complete agreement that it was this species, and not the slightly smaller, differently-plumaged resident species Grey-breasted Martin (which we also saw).

Barra de Santiago
We had breakfast in Barra de Santiago and then were off searching for birds in the mangroves there. We encountered many mangrove specialties such as Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Boat-billed Heron, Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Swallow, and mangrove subspecies of Common Black Hawk and Yellow Warbler. Other notable observations in the mangroves include Grey-necked Wood-Rail, and a cluster of three singing (!) Black-and-white Warblers.

The mudflats at Barra de Santiago had Snowy Plover, Wilson's Plover, Collared Plover (the bird in the standard blog header, at the top right), Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, American Oystercatcher, Marbled Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilt, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, as well as Sandwich, Royal and Elegant Terns, Laughing and Franklin's Gulls, and various other species. Part of the heroics of a birdathon is unexpected adversity, which we encountered in the form of a flat tire we had to replace. That done, we debated whether we should drive over to Los Cóbanos and rent a boat to go out on the ocean there, or try to arrange something from Barra de Santiago. Pressed for time, we chose the latter option.

We went out on the ocean in a small wooden fishing boat, which had some trouble breaking through the considerable surf. Once that was accomplished, however, we went out on a calm Pacific Ocean, in search of pelagics. About a kilometer out, we visited some fishing boats but they only had species that we had already seen from land, like Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Pelican. We knew we had to go out further to encounter the truly pelagic stuff, but also knew that this was virtually impossible with only a few hours in a wooden fishing boat. However, as we got a little further offshore, we began to encounter specialties like Brown Noddy, Pomarine Jaeger, Black Storm-Petrel, and groups of Red-necked Phalaropes.

We also saw a couple of sea turtles. Intriguing was a sighting of a group of about 20 smallish birds that took off and flew rapidly away from us. We tried to follow but lost them almost immediately and never relocated this group. I was at the bow of the boat and turned around to say "Wow, what were they? They looked like alcids to me." To which Oliver replied that he too had been reminded of alcids! The boatsman merely said they were different from the omnipresent Red-necked Phalaropes, and that he had seen this particular species before. And that too, of course, is a classic part of birdathon lore: 'the ones that got away...'

Around nightfall, we picked up nightjars like Common Pauraque and Chuck-Will's-Widow, before heading back to our lodging in El Imposible.

El Imposible
All Sunday morning and a good deal of Sunday afternoon we spent in National Park El Imposible, where again we found many great birds, like Crested Guan, Great Currasow, King Vulture, Black Hawk-Eagle, Blue Seedeater, Blue Bunting, Paltry Tyrannulet, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Long-tailed Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and many, many others.

This Pale-billed Woodpecker belongs to the same genus as the now extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and also produces a 'double rap', like the ivorybill once did.

One of the highlights for me personally was the bird pictured above. A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Charlie Moores for his birding and conservation podcast called Talking Naturally about the birdathon and the bird monitoring program it sponsors, and one of the things he asked me was "which bird would you like to see more than anything else in the birdathon?" My answer was White Hawk, a spectacular raptor that is found in El Imposible but had thus far eluded me through several visits. As we reached the lookout of Cerro Leon to pick up raptors, Benjamin spotted a white speck sitting in a tree on the opposite mountain slope. The bird sat there for a few minutes while I tried taking photos of it, then took of, circled a bit and left. Had we reached the lookout ten minutes later, we never would have gotten this fantastic bird.

Santa Rita
We got to Santa Rita later than we had hoped, and found fewer species than expected, although a late Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, one of the few species that breed here and migrate to South America, was a great find. Also there was this Boat-billed Heron, a species we had already found the day before in Barra de Santiago. In Barra, I couldn't get any decent photos. In the fading light at Santa Rita, this individual was more cooperative.

If you've enjoyed reading all of this, and you think bird conservation in Central America is a worthy cause, then please consider sponsoring the birdathon with a donation! All funds raised are used for bird monitoring at various banding stations in El Salvador and Honduras. Instructions on how to donate, and more information about the event and the program it sponsors, can be found here. Your support is greatly appreciated!

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