Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Whirlwind Peru!

Recently back from about 10 days in Peru. Friend and still-young birder Jory Teltser had been itching to get away during his trimester break from school, and I was happy to oblige. Jory picked the location and general itinerary. I pretty much just showed up!

I arrived in Cusco on the morning of September 14th, grabbed a rental SUV and collected Jory, who had been hanging around Cusco & vicinity with his uncle for about a week. We immediately hit the road for what would be our most ambitious leg of the trip: driving to Lake Titicaca for one night and returning to Cusco the following evening. Thanks to two road closures and a few roadside birding stops the drive took about 8 hours each way. That left us with one morning's birding on the lake near Puno. Our "floating island" Airbnb provided us with birds from the porch at first light, but a boat ride from our hosts provided us with our first major target of the trip, TITICACA GREBE.

Titicaca Grebe

Plumbeous Rail chick

Andean Gull

Lake Titicaca, looking back towards Puno

on approach to our "floating" Airbnb

On our way out of town after the boat ride, heading back towards Cusco, we made several roadside stops in search of Puna Plover (which we dipped on). But as an unexpected consolation we stumbled across two ANDEAN AVOCETS.

Andean Avocet (right) with Chilean Flamingo

A storm rolls through the Andes

We spent the night of the 15th in Cusco, where we would be picked up by our driver the following morning as we began our journey down the celebrated Manu Road. Our first cloud forest birding stop along said mountain road was a lunch break at Wayqecha Biological Station. The meal was delicious, but it was difficult to focus on food with active hummingbird feeders just off the porch. We tallied seven species including COLLARED INCA and SHINING SUNBEAM, which goes down in my book as one of the best bird names in the world. We also enjoyed fantastic views of several HOODED MOUNTAIN TANAGERS, one of my favorites of the entire trip and an absolute monster of a bird, each one looking as if it had just swallowed another tanager whole. As we continued our descent on this east side of the Andes, the roadside birding was curbed by a steady rain. The standout bird of the afternoon was a lone CHESTNUT-CRESTED COTINGA that hardly seemed bothered by the weather.

Chestnut-crested Cotinga

Cloud forest from Manu Road

A break in the clouds

Our evening arrival at Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge was a bit late for serious birding, so we settled in and enjoyed a superb dinner & beer. In fact, the food here was just about as enjoyable as the birding, and that's really saying something. From the starters to dessert, all top notch.

Our birding-by-foot on the 17th tallied a combined 65 species with a ton of quality such as SOLITARY EAGLE, VERSICOLORED BARBET and PARADISE TANAGER. That night we walked the road down the mountain for a bit and turned up a foraging female LYRE-TAILED NIGHTJAR that provided really excellent views in our spotlight.

Paradise Tanager

Silver-beaked Tanager

Solitary Eagle

The next morning we arranged our attendance at the nearby ANDEAN COCK-OF-THE-ROCK lek. Three male birds were actively strutting their stuff just down the slope. While watching the lek we were briefly visited by an ANDEAN MOTMOT.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock

Andean Motmot

After breakfast we departed this lodge for our next stop: the Amazon. But not before we were visited by a WIRE-CRESTED THORNTAIL and enjoyed much better looks at the barbet.

Wire-crested Thorntail

As we approached Atalaya, where we would take a short boat ride to Amazonia Lodge, we stopped at Mirador Pico de Hoz to check their hummingbird feeders. Active as advertised, we tallied a quick nine hummer species, ASH-COLORED CUCKOO, and a rather obliging WHITE-THROATED TOUCAN.

Gould's Jewelfront

White-throated Toucan

We arrived at Amazonia mid-afternoon on the 18th and set up for three nights. Just birding the immediate lodge grounds proved productive that evening, as we noted several hummingbirds, guans, trogons and macaws. Side-by-side GREEN HONEYCREEPER and YELLOW-BELLIED DACNIS stood out from the crowd.

We spent the 19th walking the trails and river banks, coming up with a list of 88 species between us. Narrowing down the highlights from a list like this isn't easy, but I particularly enjoyed the YELLOW-BROWED SPARROWS. Kidding. I mean, there's nothing wrong with them. But highlights they were not. To be honest though, two of my favorite birds of the day were mostly brown and not colorful at all. Two SAND-COLORED NIGHTHAWKS and a single flyby LADDER-WINGED NIGHTJAR were a real treat, as I show my nocturnal birding bias here. The night birding was quite good, in fact, as we heard or saw four owl species, two nightjars, a nighthawk and a potoo over our three nights here!

Cobblestone riverbank as skies threaten evening rain

South American Tapir tracks

On the morning of the 20th we took a boat ride downriver to access a parrot roost and a trail network. Watching hundreds of parrots noisily frolicking along forest edge was quite a treat. I was particularly fond of the BLUE-HEADED PARROTS. The stretch of wet forest later that morning boasted an impressive roost of HOATZIN and our first and only HORNED SCREAMERS of the trip.

Horned Screamer


immature King Vulture

sunrise on the river

Our time in the Amazon came to an end on the 21st, when we made the long drive back to Cusco. This was essentially a travel day. The next morning we flew from Cusco to Lima, got COVID tested at the airport, grabbed a rental car and managed to locate our Airbnb south of the city center. Back-to-back days without really any birding. Boo!

The 23rd would be our last day in Peru, as we each had late night redeye flights back to the States. But we had enough time to spend the entire morning-midday birding the coast south of Lima! Those of you who know me pretty well will not be surprised to hear that this was my favorite day of the trip.

"How could half a day on the coast possibly beat cloud forest and Amazon birding," you are likely wondering. For whatever reason I have always gravitated towards birding open spaces rather than forest. Coast, marsh, open ocean, etc. Even inland fields or hill/mountain tops qualify to a degree. That is my preferred habitat, especially when you add water to the equation. Unsurprisingly I favor the birds that occupy those spaces: seabirds, shorebirds, terns, raptors and others. "Viz-mig" (visible migration) is another interest of mine, one that is best observed with a view of the sky. In fact, migration in general I find endlessly fascinating and exciting. I would honestly much rather look at long-distance migrant shorebirds on a mudflat than some resident range-restricted endemic elaenia in a forest.

So I was in my element when we arrived before sunrise to sea watch from a Pucusana bluff. Immediately INCA TERNS, PERUVIAN BOOBIES, and PERUVIAN PELICANS were found to be numerous. To our surprise and delight, there was a steady movement of southbound SOOTY SHEARWATERS. We were hoping at a glimpse of a PERUVIAN DIVING-PETREL, and it didn't take long for the first to appear in the line of shearwaters. We ended up tallying 36 of these unique tubenoses moving south! The seabird movement shut down after about an hour, and we decided to end the count then. Before we left, we did enjoy fine views of SURF CINCLODES, a marine rock-loving passerine that, as Jory put it, "is basically a Purple Sandpiper."

Jory scoping the seas as Inca Terns forage below

From there we drove to the waterfront to meet a boatman who would take us on an hour-long circumnavigation of Isla Pucusana, home to many inshore seabirds. Tons more boobies, pelicans and terns. Four RED-NECKED PHALAROPES were cooperative, and we picked out about a half-dozen BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES amongst the PERUVIAN. Killer views of RED-LEGGED CORMORANT, which is one heck of a cool bird in breeding plumage, and one rather approachable HUMBOLDT PENGUIN.

Peruvian Booby

Inca Tern

Blue-footed Boobies

South American Sea Lion

Humboldt Penguin

Red-legged Cormorant

Belcher's Gull

Guanay Cormorant

Inca Terns

Inca Tern

Peruvian Pelican

a misty morning in the harbor

After that awesome Pucusana experience we had a bit more time before repacking and driving to the airport, so we continued 20 minutes further south to Puerto Viejo for a peek. Not sure what to expect, we encountered a private community that was closed to the public but held a pair of GREAT GREBES in the manmade pond near the entrance. In the scrub just outside was a pair of PERUVIAN THICK-KNEES. A nearby beach held a large flock of roosting GRAY GULLS and a smattering of shorebirds.

Peruvian Thick-Knee

Gray Gull

Gray Gull

American Oystercatcher

Blackish Oystercatcher with Americans

Getting back to Lima was, of course, an adventure. For anyone traveling to Peru for the first time, be aware that driving in Lima is pure chaos. There seems to be an air of lawlessness on the roads. Be prepared! Luckily we got the rental car back without any [new] scratches or dents.

Overall we enjoyed a very successful trip considering that this was our first visit to the country, and we did not use local guides other than drivers/boatmen. I ended up with around 315 species (several left off the list due to insufficient views or truly uncertain IDs), and Jory surpassed 400 during his time in Peru. Looking forward to a return visit, which must include a pelagic into the Humboldt Current!

- Nick

Monday, October 11, 2021

Big Day article in Scientific American

If you have followed this blog at all over the last several years, you probably have read a post or two summarizing our annual statewide Connecticut Big Day that we run in May. This year Kate Wong, editor and writer at Scientific American, observed and interviewed us throughout the process. Her feature-length article on the event was published in the current (October 2021) issue of the renowned magazine. Check it out online, or pick up a copy at your local newsstand or bookstore!

 - Nick

Monday, September 6, 2021

Labor Day Weekend - SABINE'S GULL+

Sep 2

The remnants of Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc even in her weakened form here in the northeast USA as she dumped 4-8 inches of rain throughout Connecticut on September 1st. As the low pressure slowly pulled away on the 2nd, skies finally brightened late morning. Temperatures had fallen, humidity had dropped, and there was a solid wind from the north. Off from work for a few days, I figured I would head to Lighthouse Point in New Haven to see if anything was flying. Abby Sesselberg and Paul Cashman were already on watch but had not noted anything moving yet. Not long after my arrival the first migrant raptor of the day ripped through in the form of a MERLIN, soon joined by OSPREY, BALD EAGLE, and NORTHERN HARRIER. A small afternoon flight had developed. Swallows (five species) and swifts were also on the move in numbers. We heard a ROYAL TERN calling from the harbor and soon spotted it from the hawk watch.

Before heading out, I drove down to the beach to scan the water and found several flocks of terns and gulls feeding offshore. Among the COMMON TERNS were a handful of FORSTER'S, a ROSEATE, and two CASPIAN TERNS flew overhead while calling.

[Click images to view larger versions]

Caspian Tern

Sep 3

Conditions overnight, clear skies with a cool north wind, were excellent for nocturnal migration. I headed to Willard's Island (Hammonasset Beach SP) with Severin Uebbing and Cody Limber for morning flight, which was decent but not great. The count was 178 warblers of 11 species.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Canada Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Cape May Warbler

After dropping off Severin and Cody post-Hammo, the afternoon was looking beautifully sunny with a light wind. Why not spend the rest of the day on the water? I had been looking for calm conditions during the late August-early September window to explore Long Island Sound via boat. On paper, this should be one of the best times of year for rarities in the Sound. Long-tailed Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, and Red-necked Phalarope are all migrating right now, and those pelagic populations will take a partially over-land route from their breeding grounds to the Atlantic Ocean, which means that some likely fly over CT each autumn without being seen. Adding to the list of potential rarities, Brown Boobies have made a minor push into the area in recent weeks. From that list, only Red-necked Phalarope is not an absolute mega in Connecticut, and even the phalarope is rare. None of those species can be expected by any means, but the odds of running into something unusual increase from "yeah, right" to "puncher's chance" at this time of year. At the very least, Common Tern and Laughing Gull numbers tend to peak in that window, which means that you're very likely to have birds to look through, rarity or not.

I headed east out of New Haven Harbor and quickly saw the same feeding frenzies that I had scoped from Lighthouse Point the prior afternoon. Armed with fishing gear, I quickly caught two bluefish for the table and put them on ice. The goal was to focus on birds, though, so after going through these flocks I continued eastward. I got as far as Old Saybrook when the sea conditions quickly turned. The wind increased sharply and was now coming out of the west, creating a "wind against tide" scenario that caused a classic Long Island Sound chop to develop. There was no reason to go any further, so I headed back towards home. The birding was OK, though not as many terns and gulls were present as anticipated. In fact, the New Haven area held the most activity by a wide margin. Most notable to me was the presence of five GREAT CORMORANTS, three adults and two juveniles, all clearly recently arrived from the north. Conventional wisdom says it is early for this species' arrival in Long Island Sound, and they are flagged by eBird as such, but recent September boat trips to outer islands and breakwaters have revealed that they arrive earlier and in greater numbers than we can appreciate from shore.

Great Cormorants (right) with Double-crested Cormorants. Adult above, juvenile here.

Terns were represented by the four most expected species for the date: COMMON, FORSTER'S, ROSEATE, and BLACK.

Black Tern

Upon my arrival back to New Haven, the fish and birds were still going strong. This time there were birds further offshore, which I thought held better promise for a jaeger. I also wanted to make sure that they were indeed feeding over bluefish (they were) and not over my first false albacore of the year. Caught and released a few more blues, which always put up a good fight. One particularly impressive school of blitzing blues popped up next to the boat, but while videoing the action I nearly dropped the phone when I noticed that a SABINE'S GULL was feeding just off the stern of the boat! Somehow I managed to stop the video before the expletives started flying. I ran for the stowed camera.

There it was - a fresh juvenile Sabine's foraging over the feeding fish with a smattering of Laughing Gulls. This is only the third state record of this species, the prior two occurring on the dates of September 3rd and 5th. I'd call that a pattern.

I fully expected this to be a short-lived sighting, as many pelagic birds leave the Sound as soon as they can, but to my surprise the bird was casually working the area for food. I was on it for about 20 minutes before the feeding stopped and the birds scattered on the water. I never saw it leave, so I assume it dropped to the water and was lost in the increasingly steep chop.

Sabine's Gull

Sep 4

It was back to Willard's this morning, with Julian Hough, for migration, which turned out to be quite slow. 81 warblers of ten species flew out in an hour and a half. The west end puddles, in fine condition after all that rain, continued to hold shorebirds including STILT and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS.

Cape May Warbler (top) and American Redstart

Black-throated Green Warbler

Baird's Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

Later in the afternoon I reconvened with Julian and his son Alex for a boat ride off New Haven in hopes of a repeat Sabine's performance. Unfortunately most of the gulls and terns from the previous two days had vanished. Our hopes for something unusual had been dashed. Out of absolute nowhere a small gull flew across the bow of the boat that turned out to be a juvenile BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE. This species is rare in CT and is on the Review List, though it is not in the same realm as the Sabine's. I believe this is my fourth self-found kittiwake in the state. It quickly disappeared to the southeast, more in line with typical LIS pelagic behavior than yesterday's Sabine's encounter.

Black-legged Kittiwake

There was definitely something going on with juvenile kittiwakes over the weekend. On the same day as the sighting above there were two land-based sightings from the NYC/LI region and another inshore MA, plus an inland PA record a day or two later.

That's a few days of quality local birding for sure. It felt good to get back into the swing of things, as autumn migration seems to have woken me out of my non-birding slumber. Monitoring the Willard's morning flight has been a blast, and being able to turn up some rarities via boat is always a sweet surprise.

 - Nick