Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ocellated Quail

Yesterday morning I had the good fortune to stumble upon a very handsome bird that’s rarely seen: Ocellated Quail. They live where I live, on Cerro de Hula in Honduras, and I occasionally hear them or get brief views of birds I flushed from practically under my feet. When that happens, they usually fly only short distances, then drop down in the vegetation, and you can search all you want to, you’re unlikely to see them.

For years, Xeno-Canto only had one recording, from Guatemala, of a bird giving a drawn-out whistle (“puuuuuurr”), followed by some shorter phrases (“piu-piu-piu”). 

Living in Honduras these past three years, I would hear that long phrase sometimes, but never the shorter second half [edit: I once heard the shorter phrases without the long phrase, which I mention in an eBird checklist comment I forgot about, here]. I wondered if the second part was only given part of the time, or perhaps part of some Guatemalan dialect that the Honduran birds didn’t do. 

Not so long ago, I flushed a pair on nearby Montaña de Izopo. Classic scenario of practically stepping on them, then seeing them fly a short distance, next they drop down in the vegetation and are not seen again. This time, however, they flew off in opposite directions. Then they started vocalizing. One of them – the male? – gave the long whistle, while the other answered with the shorter phrases. Exactly as in the Guatemalan recording – mystery solved! 

The birds yesterday were right at the edge of a dirt road on Cerro de Hula. At first I saw only the male, just sitting there. Thinking my time with this bird would be very limited, I snapped away some photos, but the bird did not move. After about a minute or so, a female appeared from out of the grass. Together they posed for more shots.

Then, as I stealthily walked closer, two more females materialized! Evidently, this male was quite the gentleman, keeping watch while the females foraged. They then quickly walked off, of which I was able to get a few seconds of video.

Anyone interested in seeing this species should come to Honduras, where it is probably a little less rare than in Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua. The pine forests of Olancho have traditionally been the place to look for them here in Honduras, although they can also be found closer to Tegucigalpa. Parts of Olancho are not considered safe, which is why I haven’t done much birding there. I’ve seen or heard them several times in an open pine forest with a brushy understory on Montaña de Izopo, about 20 km south of Tegucigalpa. Here on Cerro de Hula (close to Montaña de Izopo), they are found in an agricultural area where fields are used for corn cultivation or left abandoned for horses to graze. There's a few small patches of degraded woodland here and there, but it's mostly grassland. Land management practices here include yearly burns (usually around April), where most of the grassy vegetation that dried out during the dry season is burned at the end of that season. One would expect such practices to impact the local bird communities, yet the Vulnerable (IUCN) Ocellated Quail occurs here, as does a large population of Sedge Wrens (highly local in most of Central America). This spot is also the only known wintering location of Cassin’s Kingbird in Central America (the majority wintering further north, until southeastern Mexico).

Monday, August 4, 2014

New birds from the Gulf of Fonseca

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

The last two species to be added to the Honduras bird list were California Gull, which I saw back in February of this year with Roselvy, Mayron and Oliver, and Kelp Gull, which I saw with Roselvy, also in February of this year. It's always exciting to find new birds for a country, and yesterday, the same team of observers (Oliver, Mayron, Roselvy and me) added two more for Honduras: Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel and Black Storm-Petrel! All four new species this year have come from Gulf of Fonseca in southern Honduras, an area that remains underbirded, and may have more undiscovered treasures.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
Our idea was to repeat the trip to the Farallones we did two years ago. Unfortunately, our boatsman rather carelessly got us into Salvadoran waters, and the testy relationship between El Salvador and Honduras being what it is, angry Salvadoran marines intercepted us, and almost had us arrested for entering Salvadoran waters without the necessary paperwork. We actually had bothered to get all necessary paperwork, but for leaving Honduras and entering Nicaragua (Los Farallones belong to Nicaragua). We hadn't planned on visiting El Salvador or El Salvador waters.

The poor pumped-up marine officer, suffering from unnaturally high levels of testosterone, started giving us all kinds of crap about not being able to do research without a permit. We tried to explain to him that not all birding is research, and that we were just tourists. He then claimed we needed a tourism permit (which does not exist, as we respectfully pointed out to him), and he said that our names did not appear on the paperwork we had processed with the Honduran customs people. (Later on, we discovered that all our names were there.) He also ordered a giant bag we had on board containing life vests to be emptied, and, seeing there were only life vests in there, he himself started to deflate a little. He handed us back our documents, and ordered us to get the hell out of his waters.

Which of course we did. Back in Honduran waters, we hoped to continue our trip to the Farallones, but our boatsman was now so afraid that he refused to do that. We ended up birding an area 6 km east of (Salvadoran) Meanguera and 3-5 km south of (Honduran) Amapala.

This proved productive, because that's where we observed the afore-mentioned pelagics. Both Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel and Black Storm-Petrel occur widely along the Pacific coast of Central America, and thus were expected to occur in Honduras also. We observed an estimated six Black-Storm-Petrels (at least four seen at the same time) but as the birds were criss-crossing those waters casually, there may have been more, perhaps even ten or more. We only saw one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel twice, although it's possible there really were two or more.

Black Storm-Petrel
Oliver and Mayron got better (and more) shots of the Black Storm-Petrels than I did; my camera died on me in the middle of intense heat and heavy usage. It's been back from the dead before, but this time it seems a replacement is in order.

Bridled Tern
Bridled Terns (from the colony on the Farallones) and Black Terns were also there.

I apologize to the readers of this blog for the rather long hiatus between this and the previous post. I'll try to post a bit more regularly from now on.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Prairie Merlin: overlooked in Central America?

Sunday morning, I photographed this female or immature Prairie Merlin (Falco columbarius richardsonii) behind our house, on a dirt road that leads to the top of Cerro de Hula. In this plumage they are similar to Taiga Merlins (ssp columbarius), the expected ssp in Central America, but subtly differ in the following aspects: paler overall; rufousy thin breast streaks on a white breast; malar stripe nearly absent; paler mantle. The overcast weather made for a very dark photo. In the field, the bird looked pale.

Two years ago, there was an adult male on the campus of Zamorano University, about 27 km from Cerro de Hula. The weather was about the same that day, i.e. overcast and drizzly, but adult males are a little easier to identify. See this blog entry for a detailed description and photos of that observation, and for a discussion of the regional occurrence of the various Merlin subspecies.

There’s one other record on eBird for the region, from Belize two years ago. That bird was photographed only after it had flown further away from the observers. Although the photo apparently was too distant to be conclusive, the description is convincing. Interestingly, that observation was 5 days apart from ours in Zamorano. The Zamorano bird was not seen again that winter, despite regular coverage. I wonder if our Cerro de Hula bird will stick around.

Prairie Merlins are thought to winter no further south than northwest Mexico, but these reports indicate that small numbers may winter further south than previously thought.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cool yard bird: Black-billed Cuckoo

Lately, I have had cuckoos on my mind. There was a week or so last year when you couldn't bird just about anywhere in central Honduras without seeing at least one of the Coccyzus cuckoos – usually the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoo. But that was late September / early October, and after mid-October this year, I thought the window was closing on them, and I wasn't going to see one this year.

Then suddenly there was this hatch-year Black-billed Cuckoo in my own backyard this morning! Probably not a rarity in Honduras, where the entire North American population must pass through in migration twice a year, but all the same a species rarely reported, due to its secretive habits.

Now I need to find me a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

27 October 2013 postscript:
Eight days later and 200 m further, Roselvy and I found an immature Black-billed Cuckoo today! According to eBird, nobody else is reporting this species in Central America this fall, and here we are with two immature Black-billed Cuckoos. Are they the same bird? It seems likely, yet I'm not 100% convinced that they are. Here are some photos of today's bird, seen along the dirt road that goes up to Cerro de Hula (Honduras). As I said, this is roughly 200 m from our backyard.

We're looking at the other side of the face, compared to last week's bird. But note the distribution of the darker color on the (lower) mandible. Here's a photo in which the bird turned its head:

Compare that to the bird at the top of this post, and tell me if it's the same bird or not.

I never did find that Yellow-billed Cuckoo...

Friday, October 11, 2013

Raptor migration in the Gulf of Fonseca

Swainson's Hawks migrating over San Lorenzo, Valle
Exactly one year ago, on 10 October 2012, I observed a large raptor flight in San Lorenzo, Valle. Thinking the same phenomenon would likely be visible at the same location a year later, Roselvy and I went down to the southern lowlands yesterday, where we visited the same site, and a few nearby birding spots.

Sure enough, when we got there, we found a sizable raptor flight in progress. Like last year, the flight consisted mostly of Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks, with modest numbers of Broad-winged Hawks and a smattering of other species present. Unlike last year, most lines were far away from the salt ponds complex La Ostia, where we started our birding, so there we focused on the shorebirds present.

Wilson's Plovers
Those too were nearly the same species and number as last year! Last year I missed Stilt Sandpiper – yesterday two were present; and I missed (western) Willet – yesterday three were present. We missed Solitary Sandpiper yesterday, but apart from those differences, we observed the same species in more or less the same numbers as exactly one year ago.

Stilt Sandpipers
After an hour and forty-five minutes in oppressive midday heat, we bailed and looked for food, shade and a better view of the raptor flight at Restaurante Brisas del Golfo. There we observed a raptor line directly overhead, one further south crossing the Gulf, and one further inland over the hills. Although we didn't count, we estimated about 10,000 Turkey Vultures, 6,000 Swainson's Hawks and 500 Broad-winged Hawks to have been passing us during the one hour and forty-five minutes we spent there.

Swainson's Hawks
A final stop at nearby shrimp farm Culmavic added migrant Chimney Swift and American Kestrel to our list, as well as the locally common Clapper Rail.