Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hawk migration in Honduras

Broad-winged Hawk

These last few days, hawk migration, especially that of Broad-winged Hawks, has been evident here in (southern) Honduras. Most of the time, the wind here comes from the north, but when the weather switches to light south winds late March - early April, migration of broadwings can be expected. We saw this last year also, although a week later.

our wintering Merlin, still around

Roselvy and I first noticed hawk migration this week on Saturday, when we were treated to 11 raptor species (not counting vultures) at our local patch, Laguna Villa Royal. That list included residents such as Common Black-Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk and local winter visitors such as American Kestrel and Merlin. Raptors observed actively migrating included Osprey (3), Mississippi Kite (1), Sharp-shinned Hawk (1), Cooper's Hawk (1), Broad-winged Hawk (111), Swainson's Hawk (1), and Peregrine Falcon (2). Sunday, we observed hawk migration at three different locations along CA-5, the highway that runs from Tegucigalpa south to the Pacific lowlands, for a total of nearly 900 broadwings. Yesterday, the wind shifted to north and picked up in strength, and early morning a few remaining broadwings could be seen struggling in the wind.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Green-winged Teal

Left to right: adult male Blue-winged Teal, female Green-winged Teal, juvenile Pied-billed Grebe

It's been another great winter for ducks in Central America, and my local patch, Laguna Villa Royal in Honduras, has been getting some of that action too. Yesterday, I found a female Green-winged Teal – common in Mexico but rare further south. The bird was not very cooperative and swam away nervously as I tried to get closer. Thus, the photos are just documentation shots, but at least I was able to get a couple of comparison species in the photos.

When I first spotted it at some distance, it was in the company of two Pied-billed Grebes, a regular species at the site. I noticed right away that it was the same size as them, and figured this was a good candidate for Green-winged Teal. The dark plumage and the compact build helped me to complete the identification.

This latest addition brings the number of ducks I've seen there up to nine, including less regular species such as Masked Duck, Ruddy Duck and Northern Pintail. Last year, the Lesser Scaup cleared out mid-March, while the Ring-necked Ducks continued until the third week of April. This year, it's the ring-necks that seem to have left already while the scaup continue. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Filling in more gaps

Yellow-breasted Chat

Back in January, Roselvy and I set out to bird in 'eBird data-deficient' areas in southern Honduras, where few birders venture into the heat of the dry forest. That day, we succeeded in collecting some bird distribution data for four new eBird quadrants. 

The two eBird quadrants we visited yesterday

Yesterday, we went on a similar quest, this time targeting two 'empty quadrants' near the Honduras / El Salvador border. The habitat we found ourselves in was similar to that of our January trip, and many of the birds were the same species, with a couple of notable differences. For example, that day in January we found Banded Wren to be present at practically every location we stopped, but Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl curiously absent. Yesterday, it was the other way around: Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls everywhere, but no Banded Wrens. This illustrates the point that these surveys are often incomplete after just one visit. However, some data is always better than no data.

A pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls

We stopped at six locations distributed among two eBird quadrants, and counted birds at each of them for about 20 minutes or so. We left a little late and these quadrants aren't exactly next door for us, so by the time we got to our first stop, it was already 10 AM. In this part of Honduras – the hottest part of the country – that means the temperature is already up to 36° C (or 97°F) by that time. Around midday, the car's temperature gauge read 40° C (104° F). That's hot.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Despite the heat, we soldiered on, reminding ourselves we were 'on a mission from God'. Some birds were present at each point (e.g. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Streak-backed Oriole, Rufous-naped Wren) or at most points (e.g. White-tipped Dove, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Turquoise-browed Motmot). A few birds we had at single points only, like Gray Hawk, Yellow-throated Vireo, Nutting's Flycatcher, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and Yellow-billed Cacique, but these birds are no doubt still relatively common in the area. We had Striped Cuckoo at two different spots, once in each quadrant. That species is not terribly common in Honduras.

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole is a common species of disturbed habitats on the Pacific Slope.

Spot-breasted Oriole

Spot-breasted Oriole has a smaller range, but in Honduras is found throughout the country, on both slopes.

Yellow-billed Cacique

Typical birding scene in the Pacific dry forest: endless tangle of twigs with a bird inside. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Giant Wren

Giant Wren is an endemic from the Pacific lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico. I have been to Mexico many times, and I've been to Chiapas several times, but I had never seen this bird. It's not a secretive, silent skulker, nor is it particularly rare, it's just that its range is very, very small.

Why that would be, who knows. It's not like it's found in rare, fragile habitat, in fact it seems to thrive in disturbed habitats. Around the hotel where I stayed (Loma Real in Tapachula), this is one of the more common birds. The first morning after I got there, I got up early for some birding with really only one target bird.

And sure enough, one of the first birds I saw was Giant Wren. They're easy to find: all you need to do is listen for large tree branches falling. Because of their sheer bulk, almost any branch they land on immediately breaks off, and they leave a trail of destruction in the forest. Their deafening vocalizations are a terror to the locals, many of whom have indeed gone deaf.

Now, wait a minute… 

No, it's not like that. While big for a wren, they're certainly not enormous. They're like a slightly bigger Rufous-naped Wren without barred upperparts, a common species throughout southern Mexico and Central America. (That species, incidentally, varies considerably geographically, both in plumage and size.) Or, if South America is your frame of reference, they are a lot like Bicolored Wren of northern South America: same size, very similar plumage. 

Here's a little video I shot of a threesome engaged in a singing bout. In the background, Melodious Blackbird can be heard, and, when the wrens stop, another pair or trio of Giant Wrens singing nearby.

For me, just the name 'Giant Wren' had invested the bird with a mythical aura that I knew was going to be very hard for the bird to live up to. While I enjoyed seeing them, I couldn't help but think they were a little oversold with a name like that. Cool birds, though.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

New wrens

Lava flows at El Playón, San Salvador

I'm currently on a business trip, my business being nothing more fancy than getting my ass out of Honduras (or northern Central America, to be precise), in order to renew upon return my visa status in that country. A necessary evil, I figured I might as well design the trip to get myself a couple of life birds, and the theme I chose for this trip was "wrens". 

A trip to Tapachula, just across the border in Chiapas, Mexico, would do the trick, and would allow me to connect with Giant Wren, a restricted-range species endemic to the Pacific lowlands of Chiapas. Since I was traveling by bus (about ten times cheaper than by air), I decided a stopover in San Salvador would allow me to get Rock Wren. Both these wrens would be new for me.

Roselvy was already in San Salvador, and together we set out for the lava fields on the back side of the San Salvador volcano. Although only 30 minutes by car, our bus trip to the lookout of El Playón as it is called took us quite a bit longer. However, once there an obliging Rock Wren presented itself within 5 minutes.

Rock Wren

This is a cool bird that thrives where few other critters find anything of their liking. These lava flows are just rocks on top of rocks, with little or no vegetation. However, where resources are sparse, so is competition, and this bird evolved to fill that particular niche. It's also found in much of western North America, but its distribution in Central America is quite local. The birds here are much paler than the northern Rock Wrens.

I've been coming to El Salvador for years, but somehow had never really looked for this species at the few places where it is found. While we were in the area, we decided to visit the nearby Laguna Chanmico also. 

It was midday and our expectations were modest, but we did really much better than expected. As soon as we got there, we realized the place was packed with ducks!

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal is not a common species anywhere in Central America, yet here we found no fewer than four males and two females. 

Northern Shovelers

More common in this part of the world, though usually in much smaller numbers, is Northern Shoveler. We estimated about 150 birds present, mixed in with about 900 Blue-winged Teal. 

Ruddy Ducks and Blue-winged Teal

A spectacular number of Ruddy Ducks were also present. We counted no fewer than 380 individuals here, a huge count in this part of the world. We found a single Ring-necked Duck as well. Who knows what else was hidden among the duckage there – a scope would probably have resulted in additional noteworthy sightings.

The next episode will deal with Giant Wren. Just to whet your appetite for this spectacular bird, here's a sneak preview:

photo Kris H. of Picture Topeka, licensed through Creative Commons