Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Discoveries at Cerro El Pital

I just returned from five days in the field at El Pital, El Salvador's highest peak (2,730 m) on the border with Honduras. I was there as part of a team of Salvadoran biologists. Our team was like a mini Noah's Ark, working in the torrential rains of tropical storm Alex, with two mammal specialists, two ornithologists, two botanists, two herpetologists, and two entomologists on board. I doubled as ornithologist and entomologist. One of the botanists doubled as 24/7 stand-up comedian. And despite the weather, we made a number of interesting discoveries. The bird at the top, for example, is a Sedge Wren, a species that until this week had been recorded only once before in El Salvador, without any kind of photo or audio documentation, at a site that doesn't have proper habitat to support the bird. That previous record may have been a misidentification, or at best a record of a vagrant.

This week, however, we found a small, local population of this species in El Pital's highland swampy areas, wet spots with lots of sedges and grasses. We photographed several individuals and recorded songs. We even saw a bird fly off with a fecal sac, and spent some time searching for its nest among the grasses and sedges.

This morning, while Carlos (the other ornithologist) was recording the songs of a couple of Sedge Wrens, a Ruddy Crake suddenly called! That's a bird normally found at much lower elevations (0 - 1500 m, according to Howell & Webb 1995) and as far as I know not previously reported from this site. We found it at 2,400 m! And this isn't even the only 'lowland' species we found here. Other examples include Grayish Saltator (0 - 1500 m, Howell & Webb 1995) and Spot-breasted Oriole (up to 1500 m in Central America, Howell & Webb 1995).

One of Central America's most charismatic birds is the Resplendent Quetzal, in El Salvador only known from two locations: Montecristo and El Pital. When Carlos and I got near the top of El Pital, well above 2,500 m, we found cloud forest that to me looked good for quetzal. So I started whistling one of their calls, and immediately four quetzals - two males and two females - came in! I got several shots of one male, apparently the first quetzal to be photographed at the site in 90 years!

Also at this same location, a bird that I had never seen before but had been reported once in the 90's at this site: Garnet-throated Hummingbird. We found an adult male. Note the quite obvious molt in the inner primaries on this bird.

King Vulture is another uncommon and spectacular Central American species. We saw one on an expedition to a smaller top, to collect orchids.

A surprise find was this immature Peregrine Falcon. The closest known breeding grounds are in northwest Mexico, although the species does winter in fairly decent numbers in Central America, usually near the coast. I suspect that June records for this species are quite rare anywhere in Central America.

This Rufous-collared Sparrow on the other hand is quite common in the highlands of El Pital, and its melancholy whistle could be heard from every yard or hedgerow. This bird ranges from southern Mexico all the way down to the tip of South America.

The iPod, by the way, was again fully operational last night, but we failed to turn up any of the target owl species. The only owl I heard calling faintly in the mist and rain was a Mottled Owl, a bird we didn't even play a tape for.

Our team has one day of rest / data entry / administrative work, before we head out to our next site, called Cerro El Tigre, on the slope of a volcano in eastern El Salvador. This area has been explored even less than El Pital, which means more possibilities for discoveries. You can read all about it here next week.

Cited literature
Howell, Steve N.G. & Webb, Sophie (1995) A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Oxford University Press

Monday, June 28, 2010

White-collared Swift

A short update from Cerro El Pital, the highest peak in El Salvador, where I am this week with a team of biologists from SalvaNATURA documenting the biodiversity of the area.

As I'm writing this, I'm using someone's phone modem to download a critical update to my iPod, which I was hoping to use in the field this evening to play owl calls. The iPod, however, claimed it was empty, and would not play anything. While this download is going on - supposedly for another five hours, on this slow connection - I figured I could post this spectacular photo of a White-collared Swift.

This is not a rare bird in the region, but of course it is rarely seen up close. Someone in our group found it on the ground, apparently incapable of flight. It also appeared to have a leg injury. Since it didn't seem like it was going to survive in the wild, we decided to collect it.

Hopefully the iPod will be operational again tomorrow, and we can try again for owls tomorrow night.

Thursday I will be back in the city and will try to post more photos of this trip. We found some exciting birds here...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Another pulse in Monte Uyuca

As I write this, it's late Friday night, and I've just returned from another bird banding trip to Monte Uyuca in Honduras. Tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM I am expected at the SalvaNATURA office, to start on another assignment here in El Salvador.

Of course there are stories to tell and photos to show, but with such little time at my disposal (laundry to do, batteries to charge, sleep to catch up with), I'm afraid it's just going to be a brief selection of highlights.

The bird at the top is a juvenile Common Bush-tanager. With the rainy season well under way, many birds are either nesting of have just finished nesting. We caught a fair number of hatch year birds from a variety of species.

And, as always at this site, many hummingbirds, although this time practically all were Green-breasted Mountain-gems, like this bird. I think we caught only one or two Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, and zero White-eared Hummingbirds. These last two species were quite abundant as captures only a month ago.

This morning, while walking the net lanes, I found this Mottled Owl.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Parque Los Pericos

Yesterday I went on an excursion, organized by Partners In Flight / El Salvador, to an old coffee plantation on the outskirts of San Salvador, called Parque Los Pericos. At this point, it is still no more than that: a former coffee plantation. SalvaNATURA recently signed a contract with the municipality to develop this area into a park where Salvadorans can escape the exhaust fumes and noise of the city, and relax.

I didn't really expect we were going to find any rarities here, within the San Salvador city limits, but we did stumble across one: a female Magnificent Hummingbird, pictured at the top. Regular blog readers will have seen photos of this bird before in these pages, but those photos were all from areas where this bird can be expected: Central American highlands. The normal elevational range for this species is between 1500 - 3000 m. Yesterday we found it below 900 m. What was it doing there? Did it come down from the nearby volcano? Is there some altitudinal migration in this species? Who knows?

Other cool birds seen or heard there included Thicket Tinamou, Masked Tityra, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Violaceous Trogon, and quite a few Berylline Hummingbirds.

We saw a good number of butterflies too.

This one, for example, is Tegosa guatemalena, or Guatemalan Tegosa.

And this is Mechanitis polymnia, or Confused Tigerwing. This species is often found in coffee plantations.

This skipper is called Urbanus proteus, aka Long-tailed Skipper. Apparently this individual lost one of its long tails. Urbanus skippers are often easy to photograph, because they keep returning to favorite perches. All you need to do is move close to its perch. It'll probably fly away, but if you keep still and don't make any sudden movements, it will come back to the same spot.

All these species are common butterflies here. The most abundant species we saw was Anartia fatima, Banded Peacock. This may well be the most common butterfly in Central America.

The excursion, by the way, was organized by Roselvy, coordinator of PIF/El Salvador, and had as guests two biology students from the local university, Jennifer and Melvin, and me. This park has many park rangers, and a small army of them greeted us as we arrived a little after 7 in the morning. Three went with us in the field. The guy in the middle told us he had seen Masked Tityra in the park, and when we got to the spot where he had seen it, we also saw one there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cerrón Grande revisited

Last Saturday, Roselvy and I went to Suchitoto, to bird the Embalse Cerrón Grande. About a month ago, I birded that spot also, and wrote about Snail Kites I saw there.

This time, we saw only a couple of Snail Kites cruising over the water. Of course we saw many of the same species that I had seen there a month ago. Migrants and winter birds are all up north now, so what remains are residents such as Neotropic Cormorant, Northern Jacana, Great, Cattle and Snowy Egret, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Wood Stork, Crested Caracara, Gray-breasted Martin, Mangrove Swallow, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, to name a few.

The bird at the top is a Cattle Egret.

A notable difference between now and a month ago was the number of butterflies around. In May, the rainy season had just started, and it was still a little early for decent numbers of butterflies. Now, we saw many individuals of several species, including these four fresh Guatemalan Kite-Swallowtails. I have seen these also in Mexico and Nicaragua.

A month ago I found a group of Roseate Spoonbills sitting in the trees on one of the 'bird islands'. In the middle of the reservoir is a group of islands, one of which is known locally as the 'isla de los pajaros' (bird island), although several islands here have rookeries that support large numbers of egrets and herons. Even though I didn't find any spoonbill nests back then, I assumed the birds in the trees were part of the rookery and were either breeding there or - I thought more likely - had just finished breeding there. Many spoonbills I saw were in immature plumage. And after all, spoonbills don't feed in trees.

But, as I since learned from local experts, these birds almost certainly did not breed there. The bird populations of those islands are monitored by Salvadoran biologists, and a breeding population of large, pink birds would not have gone unnoticed. Perhaps the birds were scouting the area for future breeding, and will return next year? Or they may simply have been in transit, using the reservoir as a stopover site, and one of the rookeries as a great place for an afternoon nap.

However, since we were there, we thought it prudent to revisit the island and to see if the birds were still in the area.

We paid a local woman to take us (and her daughter, left) out to the islands by boat. From the water, these islands look deceptively similar, and I kept saying "I'm almost sure this is the island where I saw the spoonbills". Eventually we did briefly land on one of the islands to check it out. In what seemed the correct trees on the correct island, we found many Wood Storks, as well as Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night-herons.

But not a trace of Roseate Spoonbills...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pacific Parakeets

Today a picture of two Pacific Parakeets, a species that roosts in large numbers near to where I'm currently staying, in Antiguo Cuscatlán, a neighborhood of San Salvador. Every evening, these birds gather here in the hundreds to roost in eucalyptus trees surrounding a baseball field.

With careful scanning, it is possible to find a few Red-throated Parakeets among them, like the bird center left.

Friday, June 4, 2010


This week I'm in San Salvador, and every morning I do what millions across the globe do: I commute to an office. Not having done this for close to five years, it feels a little strange. Each morning, I hop on a bus and ride it to work. What kind of work? This week I've been writing up 6 years of bird banding data collected on a hummingbird. All will be neatly compiled into a peer-reviewed science paper that will likely be a major source of information on that particular species of hummingbird for some time to come. The hummingbird is called Green-throated Mountain-gem.

On my commute, I get off the bus at the national stadium, which has a little swimming pool attached to it. The swimming pool is patronized by a couple of swimming clubs.

One of them is called "Fleeper"!

As a kid in the seventies, I grew up watching reruns of Flipper, the intrepid, hyper-intelligent dolphin that solved crimes humans could never solve. Flipper was my hero, and probably fostered in me an interest in nature, as I'm sure Flipper did in millions of other kids. Evidently, the members of this Salvadoran swimming club have similar fond memories of the bravery and charm of the beloved mammal. They remember his name, but they just don't remember exactly how it is spelled. Hence, an orthographic rendition that literally spells out the Spanish inflection: Fleeper. Gotta love it!

Also amusing to me: I'm standing in front of the cheese section at my local supermarket, and a sales girl comes up to me to offer me a sample of Gouda cheese. Instantly, my mind's eye registers a flashback to the Dutch city of Gouda and its market square. I passed through Gouda almost daily back in... ooh, let me see now, a long time ago. Probably sometime in the mid-nineties. I was doing field work on four species of shorebirds (waders, as they are called in Europe) in an area roughly between Gouda and Rotterdam. So I'm munching on the cheese, surprised at how good it is, and I ask her, smiling: "Do you know where Gouda is?" Without so much as batting an eyelash, she says: "Costa Rica."

And - lo and behold! - close inspection of the packaging at home reveals that this rather delectable piece of 'Gouda' cheese was indeed hecho en Costa Rica! Food purists will protest that this cannot be anything like the real thing, and that 'he has been away too long' to remember what real Gouda cheese tastes like. Meanwhile, I am enjoying this inexpensive Costa Rican product as a more than satisfactory alternative...