Thursday, July 2, 2015

Honduras Birding: Day 2, Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge

Parides sp.

For our second full day in Honduras, German took us out to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge for a boat ride through mangrove forest. To get there, the lodge shuttled us to La UniĆ³n, where we'd catch a train to take us the remaining 9 km, although "train" may seem a bit of an overstatement. Whatever you call it, we had a blast during the 45 minutes it took to complete the route. Tall grasses lined the tracks on either side, and we continually flushed White-collared and Variable Seedeaters, Thick-billed Seed-finches, and Blue-black Grassquits. German called out their names to us, but we could only register blurs before they were already behind us. It was easier to distinguish the Inca Doves from the Ruddy Ground-doves, and there was no mistaking a lone Northern Jacana. A pair Black-headed Trogons staked-out a termite mound, and after we shouted out in excitement and gestured wildly at the birds, the conductor very generously stopped the train and let us get some photos.

Spot-breasted Oriole nest

Black-headed Trogon

At Cuero y Salado, the three of us loaded into a small motorized boat along with our pilot, and set off along the red, white, and black mangroves. It's been years since we've been in mangrove forest, and it almost felt like we were back in south Florida, except that the here the Great Egrets, Green Herons, and Yellow-crowned Night-herons shared the habitat with awesome birds like Bare-throated Tiger-heron and Boat-billed Heron. For all that they resemble Black-crowned Night-herons, Boat-billed Heron is about as strange a bird as you're likely to see. At rest its massive bill is supported by a bulbous, protruding chest. It's eye is a cold, black marble, proportionately huge for a heron that size.

Boat-billed Heron

The first kingfisher we saw was a Ringed Kingfisher, more than twice the size of a Belted Kingfisher. We hadn't realized just how big they are. Not long afterward, our pilot would (somehow) spot an American Pygmy Kingfisher, roughly the size of a sparrow. These kingfisher species, two very different sizes. Belted Kingfisher is one of our favorite birds, but it seems so unfair to have only one kingfisher species on hand. To rub it in further, we'd pick up two additional species the following day.

Ringed Kingfisher

American Pygmy Kingfisher

At another spot, the boat pulled toward the trees and stopped. German asked slyly, "do you see anything?" Maureen's keen eyes had scrutinized every branch since we first stepped on the boat, and found it right away. "Potoo!" She'd known we might see a potoo today, and she was ready. This was a great look at an adult Northern Potoo, so unlike the juvenile Great Potoo from the day before. Eyes shut tightly, head extended upward, and camouflaged to look exactly like the branch it perched on, I marveled that anyone had seen it at all.

Northern Potoo

Soldiers, aka Tropical Queens (Danaus eresimus)

Lots of other amazing birds were seen and heard to various extents, but they weren't always the most cooperative. We picked up Cocoa Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Linneated Woodpecker, and White-necked Puffbird. Up in a snag we spotted a Common Black Hawk, not a new bird for the trip, but this one belonged to a subspecies that's specialized to live in mangrove forests, feeding on crabs, instead of soft-bodied prey.

Common Black Hawk

Calephelis sp.

Thousands of tiny bubbles rose to the surface of the water, like it was boiling just in one concentrated area. A crocodile has submerged itself a few feet from the boat and left this telltale trace along the length of its entire body. As we investigated, German pointed out some Proboscis Bats, clinging upside-down, one right above the other on a tree trunk. They were all in plain sight, but it was a challenge to get a handle on the number: "8. No, 10… 11!"

Proboscis Bats

But the ultimate mammals were the monkeys. We're big fans of the primates, and we've long dreamed of meeting monkeys in the wild. Three species are possible in this part of Honduras, but we didn't know which, if any, we would actually get to see. A co-worker of Maureen's had warned her that howler monkeys are nasty. First they'll spit at you, then pee on you, and then they'll throw their shit at you. Thankfully, it didn't come to that, but the family of Mantled Howlers did look mildly put out that there were spies in their midst. It's hard to say how many there were (maybe half a dozen?), but at least one of them was a baby monkey. Amazing! The next stop German navigated us to was colonized by White-faced Capuchins. These were a lot more active than the howlers, and wouldn't pose for us, or even sit still for half a second. Still, we had TWO species of monkey under our belts, and couldn't have been more excited about it.

Mantled Howler

Back on land, we snacked on some fresh fruit and went for a short walk while we killed time waiting for the train to pick us back up. The short trail we took led to the ocean, but there were no shorebirds, and no gulls. We decided that a distant tern was probably a Royal. Turning to head back the way we came, we had an amazing look at a female Barred Antshrike, normally a skulker, but right out in the open in front of us. German tried to impress on us just how good a bird that was, and we weren't about to disagree. On the train ride back, Maureen caught a glimpse of a Roadside Hawk hanging out just at the edge of the track. I missed it, but our van driver located one on the drive back to the lodge and pulled over so I could get a look.

Barred Antshrike

Social Flycatcher

Olive-throated Parakeet

We spend the afternoon birding the trails around the lodge, refusing to let the drizzle slow us down. I spotted a raptor through an opening in the canopy and asked, "what's the one that looks exactly like a Turkey Vulture, but it's a hawk?" German caught the direction of my gaze: "Ah, a Zone-tailed Hawk." Next, we'd get an even better look at a White Hawk than we had the day before, and the hawk seemed to glare back at us menacingly (although I'm sure it can't help but look menacing).

White Hawk

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Great Kiskadee

One bird we would quickly learn to identify by ear, even though I couldn't tell you what its song sounds like. That's because White-collared Manakins will make a loud snapping sound with their wings, that was like no other sounds we heard in the jungle. We hiked to an observation tower and unsuccessfully tried to call up Long-billed Gnatwren and some other secretive birds. But we did get decent looks at a Red-legged Honeycreeper and a Spot-breasted Wren.

White-collared Manakin (male)

White-collared Manakin (female)

Togarna Hairstreak (Arawacus togarna)

The rain started to pick up, but that didn't stop us from picking up even more ridiculous lifers as we made our way back to the lodge. Blue-black Grosbeak was a nice addition. We laughed at our good fortune, but we were about to take laughing to another level. One of my target birds for the trip, a gorgeous bird, and another example of our incredible luck with raptors was sitting, waiting for us in the rain. Even though we never got to hear the Laughing Falcon's distinctive voice, this was a definite highlight for us, and the best possible way to end another epic day of birding. As we now know for certain: he who Laughs last, laughs best.

Laughing Falcon

Friday, June 26, 2015

Honduras Birding: Day 1, Part 2

After fruit and coffee, during which we were hypnotized by swarms of hummingbirds, we set out on the first hike of the day. Normally we like a big breakfast to get us started, but we were so anxious not to waste a second that couldn't wait to hit the trails. It didn't take long before German started turning up crazy neotropical gems, not least of which was an adorable male Red-capped Manakin.

Red-capped Manakin

Green-celled Cattleheart

Next we headed over to Toucan Tower, an observation deck that gave incredible, expansive views of the rainforest of Pico Bonito National Park. Within just a few minutes we would score Purple-crowned Fairy, Stripe-throated Hummingbird, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Collared Aracari, Olive-throated Parakeets and White-crowned Parrots. Keel-billed Toucans gathered together in a single, distant tree - the most we would ever see at one time, making the name "Toucan Tower" seem quite apt.

Collared Aracari

German spotted the electric blue and purple colors of a male Lovely Cotinga against the green forest canopy. Then I scoped a female, much less conspicuous in her drab gray, with a dark, speckled breast; she was so different-looking that I wasn't even sure what I was looking at! The birds were both too far for photos, but we were happy to meet a target bird from any distance. The recent Birder's Guide to Travel named the Lodge at Pico Bonito as the best place to find this "avian unicorn," and the Cotinga is even depicted in the lodge's logo. It might seem like we were destined to see this species here, but we would only see Lovely Cotinga one other time, again right near the observation tower.

Pico Bonito National Park

Yellow-winged Tanager

Another visitor settled into view, giving the male Cotinga all the reason in the world to excuse himself quickly. He might have been proud enough of his gaudy plumage with no predators around, but it was a different story with a White Hawk nearby. We would have unbelievable luck with raptors throughout our entire time in Honduras, and it all started with this one. Even though he had his back to us the whole time, it was like he was showing off, wings and tail fanned out for us to inspect and admire every feather.

White Hawk

The sky threatened to rain, establishing a theme for the week, and we headed back down toward the lodge. We didn't get very far before we added our first trogon and our first motmot of the morning. German used playback of a Broad-billed Motmot and turned up a Blue-crowned instead -- not so surprising since they sound nearly identical. We'd seen a Turquoise-browed Motmot silhouetted against an overcast sky the evening before as we shuttled in from the airport. Even in silhouette it was an awesome sight, since we could make out that distinctive tail shape; it was even more amazing now that we could see a motmot in all it's technicolor glory.

Blue-crowned Motmot

Brown Jay

The trogon was a Slaty-tailed. Trogons seem almost mythical, being so completely unlike any birds we've seen in the U.S., and given how elusive Elegant Trogons can apparently be even when they show up within their limited corner of Arizona. This bird represented an entirely new taxonomic order on our life lists (one of three we would add), adding punctuation to the fact that we were birding in the tropics. It shares a color scheme with Elegant Trogon (green/blue above, red below), but was quite distinct from the other trogons we would find around the lodge. We finished the short trek back to the restaurant and grabbed some breakfast to fuel another round of power-birding.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Now we picked up Gartered Trogon over by the "Serpentarium," where there was both a male and a female. Unlike the Slaty-tailed, these had yellow underparts -- as did the Black-headed Trogons that were also common around here. Along the way, Red-billed Pigeons called from treetops, and Brown Jays were every bit as raucous as you'd expect a jay to be, no matter what color they are. Although the jays were one of the more common birds around the lodge, they were never out in the open for long - more than once I noticed them with nesting material, so they obviously had better things to do.

Gartered Trogon (male)

Gartered Trogon (female)

The real show was up in the sky, anyway. A Common Black Hawk flew low overhead. And then another and another. Even higher up the swifts were swirling and hawking. Huge swifts, much bigger than Vaux's or Chimney. These were White-collared Swfits. The collar could be difficult to make out sometimes, even in silhouette they were unmistakable, especially compared with the few Vaux's sprinkled among them. Back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.

White-collared Swifts

Carolina Satyrs

Facilis Skipper (Eutocus facilis)?

The afternoon began with a drizzle. "Ha! as if that's going to stop us", we thought, right before it started to downpour. We took refuge under the roof of a guard station and waited out the worst of the weather. We would learn that one of the best times to bird was be right after a hard rain, and we picked up Buff-throated and Black-headed Saltators, and Masked Tityra in quick succession. Something big kept flushing along the road behind some low vegetation. It would fly up and suddenly vanish the moment it hit the ground. Eventually, it settled in a clearing, but it still took German's sharp eyes to spot the Common Paraque's camouflage among the rocks and leaves.

Masked Tityra

Common Paraque

Next, German showed us a bird that makes even the Paraque look ostentatious by comparison. He set his scope on it, knowing exactly where it would be, and had us look at a pale extension growing out of a tree branch - except it wasn't a tree branch, but a juvenile Great Potoo. There are two kinds of potoo around Pico Bonito, but we set our expectations super low, knowing their mastery of arboreal disguises. Little did we know that German would put us on a Northern Potoo the very next day.

Great Potoo

Cocoa pod

Plain Satyr (Cissia pompilia)

A little farther along we heard a terrible cacophony, like a dog fighting a rooster. Somewhere on the other side of these trees was a Plain Chachalaca. Strangely enough, we could have seen this species when we lived in Georgia, where there's an established population on Sapelo Island, about two hours south of our apartment in Savannah. Even though we had to strain to see it, I'm glad our lifer was a wild bird in its native range, instead of an introduced game bird. On the way back to the lodge, German led us down a narrow trail through dense vegetation, where, behind us, a stocky ground bird flew in and quickly disappeared inside the forest. It all happened quickly, but that was the glimpse of a Little Tinamou represented one of the most primitive and ancient bird groups. In that flash, we could barely distinguish it from a large pigeon, and yet it something altogether different from the any other type bird we've seen.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Melodious Blackbird

Blue Morpho - a large and glorious butterfly in flight, shown here with its less-than-dazzling underside

We would "only" see 46 species on our first full day in Honduras, but it seemed like hundreds. And the day felt like it stretched into three. We were exhausted but giddy, and excited to do it all over again the next day. Not that we were ready to give up exploring once the sun set -- nighttime is moth-ing time, which deserves a post of its very own.