Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Big Sit! in Old Lyme, CT - Oct 9, 2021

The Big Sit! is an annual event on a predetermined weekend in October during which teams attempt to see or hear as many bird species as possible from the confines of a 17-foot circle. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is! There really is only one major rule: someone must see or hear said bird from the circle itself. It does not even need to be identifiable from the circle. In other words, one can leave the circle to identify a distant bird, as long as said bird is visible from the circle itself. 

Technically a "competition," this casual and fun event is more a "challenge" than anything else and might even double as a fundraiser for nature centers. Certain teams have been participating from the same circle for years now, and the goal is really just to have fun with it. Some teams do keep detailed records of their sightings, each year hoping to top their circle's previous record count. Others, such as the Milford Point "B.W. Surf Scopers," have also kept a cumulative list over the years that, I must say, is quite impressive.

Anyone interested in reading more about this event can visit the website HERE.

My personal involvement in the Big Sit has been rather limited. I have in the past assisted teams at Milford Point and Lighthouse Point. The closest I've come to an independent Big Sit came many years ago when I teamed up with Luke Tiller, who wanted to try a circle at Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, CT. We had high hopes for the location, which was a narrow barrier beach between marsh and Long Island Sound, but despite excellent migration weather the count was a dud.

I hadn't given a new circle much thought until October 16, 2019. I was scanning the Great Island marsh in Old Lyme from the observation deck in hopes of adding American Bittern to my Self Found Big Year total. Waiting for three hours for a bittern to flush during that rising tide gave me plenty of time to soak up the location. Migration conditions that midday were decent, and a light hawk flight had developed. Several sparrows were kicking around the hedges. Shorebirds were flying around the marsh as the tide rose. Gulls and terns were feeding at the river mouth. I had only tallied 41 species over those three hours, but it seemed that this spot held great Big Sit potential.

Last October thanks to conflicting plans I was unable to put together a team. But this year's weekend was wide open, and I was thrilled that there was interest among friends not already committed to another team. And so it was decided. Matt Bell, Andy Griswold, Jason Rieger, Phil Rusch and I would give it a shot!

We set our sights on Saturday, October 9th.

Phil and I arrived at 0430 in hopes of picking up a few nocturnal migrants, owls, or rails. We didn't have much calling overhead despite mostly clear skies and light ENE wind, but a few SWAINSON'S THRUSHES and a VEERY got us off to a positive start. CLAPPER RAIL called from the marsh, and just before dawn a pair of GREAT HORNED OWLS began duetting. Our only BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS of the day were heard in the dark. We ended up with twelve species predawn.

And then when dawn hit we enjoyed our heaviest activity of the day, per usual. New birds were being added left and right. The increasing east winds weren't ideal for a morning flight of passerines, and so we weren't shocked that little was passing overhead. But there was plenty on the deck to keep us busy. Egrets and gulls were pouring out of their roosts. Common backyard birds could be heard and seen in the adjacent private lots. A feeding flock of LAUGHING GULLS developed that would last on and off through the morning, and for a little while a they were joined by a juvenile BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE. Kittiwake is a state review species and a really difficult bird to see from shore, but autumn 2021 has delivered a smattering of inshore and even inland reports through the entire region, so something is going on with that species right now. We were at 65 species at 0835.

The rest of the gang arrived throughout the morning, adding plenty of fresh eyes to the crew. The rate of additions tarried but kept steady. With only a light migration happening, we weren't seeing big numbers of birds, especially passerines. We struggled with some common stuff and even ended up entirely missing Robin and Chickadee for the day! But in early-mid October bird diversity is still pretty strong in Connecticut, so there was a wide range of possibilities for us to see. What we missed was made up for with quality finds such as GREAT CORMORANT, LITTLE BLUE HERON, GLOSSY IBIS, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, BARN SWALLOW and SCARLET TANAGER.

That feeding gull flock continued to produce by sucking in passers by. At one point a BONAPARTE'S GULL got in on the action, and a flock of 21 COMMON TERNS appeared from the east and eventually settled into that flock.

As the tide rose I hopped into my kayak for a marsh paddle. LEAST SANDPIPER, SALTMARSH SPARROW, NELSON'S SPARROW and MARSH WREN were ticked from the circle as I identified them from the marsh. Shorebirds and waders were forced to move around as this super high tide covered dry ground. While I was out paddling an AMERICAN BITTERN was among those flushed by rising water. At 1320 we stood at 88 species.

Other than the feeding gulls, Long Island Sound was eerily quiet all day. Nothing much was moving. We struggled for our few SURF SCOTERS and only had a couple loons. There was a light raptor migration happening, so we ended up with most of the expected species, though Red-shouldered was a miss. One of our toughest birds of the day was ROCK PIGEON, which we ended up finally getting in flight mid-afternoon.

Once we realized that 100 species was in sight, we felt obligated to keep going until dark, even if it was like pulling teeth. Our last bird came in the form of two unidentified teal sometime after 5pm. Counting 'teal sp.' we hit 98 species, or 97 fully-identified species. Going into this we figured that 75-80 or more would be a success, so reaching 98 felt like a major victory. Who knows what the ceiling is on this place. 110+ seems very plausible. Perhaps one day under perfect conditions we will find out. The team is already looking forward to 2022 as we spitball ways to improve upon our inaugural effort!

You can read our full eBird list by clicking HERE.

Phil assembled a shockingly sturdy platform for the top of his vehicle that helped us add many a bird to the list.

Panorama view from our circle. You can see that we have a large marsh in front of us. The mouth of the Connecticut River is scopeable beyond that but not seen well in this image. That water to our left is Long Island Sound. We have hedgerows on either side of the road that descends to the boat ramp below. To our right is residential backyard that has a few trees and shrubs. Out of view behind is a mostly dirt parking lot and the end of a residential street with a few more visible trees. This conglomeration of habitats puts many species in play.

"The Great Islanders"

 - Nick

Monday, November 1, 2021

Last-Minute Algarve, Portugal! Oct 26-28, 2021

I’d be the first to admit that I am not the most spontaneous international traveler. Knowing that flight and rental car costs often increase dramatically within a month or so of departure (not a hard rule but certainly a trend), and that affordable lodging might fill well in advance, one generally can save a ton of money by booking months ahead. This also allows me to secure time from work and be far more likely to recruit travel companions.

After working a solid 70 hours over five days I found myself with several days off during peak local birding and fishing season, which also happens to be a generally glorious time to be outside in New England. IMO it is the best time of year to live here. But when I looked ahead to the week’s forecast I saw an unusually long stretch of unsettled weather. Any breaks in the rain were forecast to be brief and windy. So boating would be out of the question. You could argue that inclement weather often brings good birds, and you would be correct, but with mostly east winds in the forecast it seemed there would be little to do other than seawatching. In Connecticut seawatching Long Island Sound is usually a bust. Unless there is some special avian event happening, you are really just hoping for one interesting bird to fly by. If I were to stay in town, my move would have been to the seawatching Mecca of Cape Cod for the early-week nor’easter.

I figured I should check airfares to see if a direct last-minute flight to someplace interesting would be possible on the cheap. KAYAK has this feature in which you enter your departure point, dates of travel, and budget; it will then show you all flights under said budget. I figured I would glance at anything under $400. A few intriguing options appeared. LAX came in under $300 direct; a quick trip to the west coast would have been fun, but the weather there also looked unusually shitty. Two Mexican locales made the list: Cabo and Cancun. I still have not set foot on Mexican soil, so that could have worked too. Also on the list, a bit to my surprise, was Lisbon for $390 round trip direct from Newark with an itinerary that suited my needs. I could work Monday as scheduled, go directly to the airport for a redeye, have three days on the ground and fly back on Friday. That would put me back home in time for weekend plans I did not want to miss.

In the words of Greg the Egg, “If it is to be said, so it be – so it is.” Portugal would be the move. The plan was to fly into Lisbon, rent a car and drive straight south to the Algarve region, particularly the county of Vila do Bispo, AKA the peninsula that forms the far SW corner of Europe. Glancing at a map, it MUST be birdy in autumn just based on geography, right?! I have wanted to visit Portugal in the autumn for some time now to combine general exploring, birding, culture and wine tasting. That would take a week or more. This would not be that trip, and being by myself I might as well bird the daylight hours.

must be a rarity magnet!

A few of the Sagres area hotspots mentioned below

Portugal is not often visited by American birders, which is a bit strange to me given how quick and easy it is to reach Lisbon from the East Coast. I think the general thought process is that if you are going to bird the Iberian Peninsula or western Europe in general, just go to Spain because diversity is higher there. Which makes total sense. Spain is much larger, boasts more habitat diversity, and has a longer bird list. But Portugal during autumn should not be ignored! As I would come to find out, the birding would be super interesting despite being past peak diversity, which I believe occurs September into early October.

Thanks to a delay that I should have seen coming since I was flying United, we landed over two hours late on Tuesday morning, which actually mucked up my plans a bit. With a solid north wind blowing I had wanted to get to the hawk watch site of Cabranosa, which was bound to have a good day under those conditions. But instead of arriving there at 1pm as planned, which would have allowed for a couple hours of peak raptor time, I wouldn’t be getting there until after 3pm, just when things should be slowing down. So I called an audible to shorebirding instead.

The Ria de Alvor estuary system is, according to my internet crash course on Algarve birding, one of the highlights of the region. I started at the boardwalk on the east side of the estuary, where saltmarsh meets barrier beach meets ocean. Immediately I was greeted by my first SARDINIAN WARBLER, a super abundant bird here and one of the best-looking warblers in all of Europe IMO. Not known for being lookers, Old World Warblers get a bad rap, but those in the genus Sylvia are a wonderful exception. Unfortunately the shorebirding at this part of the estuary was disappointing. The tidal saltmarsh there was rather empty, there were no apparent roosts forming as high tide approached, and nothing was happening on the ocean. The good news is that I was able to scope a good deal of activity on the western side of the estuary, nearly a mile away, in the form of small gulls and flying shorebird flocks. With less than an hour before sunset I left the boardwalk and aimed for the closest access point to the northwest portion of the estuary. Upon arrival it was apparent that this is where I wanted to be. The calls of COMMON REDSHANK and COMMON RINGED PLOVER were coming nonstop. I scanned this impoundment from the dyke, looking north, and confirmed that there was quite a bit of activity in this particular wetland. Mental note made, I would have to return another day.

Ria de Alvor (east side)

Eurasian Kestrel

The Ria de Alvor lies a bit east of the town of Sagres, which would be my destination for the evening. Unsure what to expect, I was pleased to find that Sagres was not at all jammed with tourists. In fact, possibly because it is so far southwest and away from the main arteries from Lisbon, it was pleasantly sleepy. This is not peak beach season, but it turns out that Sagres is perhaps best known for its surfing anyway. The density of people here was perfectly to my liking…not enough to clog roads or book up lodging, but enough to liven up bars and restaurants after dark. Speaking of perfection…the weather. Each of my three days on the ground were carbon copies of one another: 75 Fahrenheit, a light breeze and not a cloud in the sky.

Lodging was abundant enough that a small private room for 1-2 people in town could be had for $45, and shared hostel-style rooms were going for half that. My Airbnb, booked for just one night to maintain flexibility, was all I could ask for. After some local vino and an artisanal pizza, it was finally time to hit the hay.

The plan for Wednesday was to seawatch from the tip of Cabo de São Vicente at first light with the target being BALEARIC SHEARWATER. The breeze would be steady out of the east, not ideal for seawatching here, but this did not deter the usual suspects from appearing. Upon arrival, looking westward, there were plenty of CORY’S SHEARWATERS moving south with several birds milling around the point. NORTHERN GANNETS also trickled by. There was a solid inshore collection of Cory’s not far from land, and it didn’t take long to pick up on the first Balearic, a small shearwater much like a Manx but with extensive brown plumage and variable amounts of white on the underparts. With the pressure off so quickly I was able to soak up the experience and take everything else as a bonus. I had remembered to throw a clicker into my luggage, so I began tallying the Cory’s that streamed past. Counting individuals wasn’t totally straightforward, as there was some milling and rafting of shearwaters just off the point.

Some of the Cory’s were so close and in such perfect light that identifying them to [sub]species was possible. In other words, conditions were good enough to divide the closest birds between the Atlantic-breeding borealis and the Mediterranean-breeding “Scopoli’s” Shearwater, split as separate species by some authorities. I was able to identify about 65 birds, and all except one were straightforward borealis. That one bird was a classic example of Scopoli’s in that the amount of white bleeding into the under-primaries was so extensive that it created only a narrow dark trailing edge. It was a bit on the slimmer side as well. Not an identification to be taken lightly, this bird at the extreme end of the spectrum was a safe call. Otherwise, diversity on the water wasn’t terribly high. A couple of GREAT SKUAS were patrolling the waters, and a single GREAT SHEARWATER joined the Cory’s parade.

Though I was very focused on the sea watch, I was intermittently distracted by a passerine morning flight that was underway. Before the wind had gone east overnight it had started out of the north, so perhaps I should have expected landbirds to be moving. Small numbers of birds, mostly finches, were coming off the ocean and reorienting northward. Being unfamiliar with the local flight calls there was plenty of “chimping” going on, though I was able to ID some stuff straight away. WHITE WAGTAIL, YELLOW WAGTAIL, SONG THRUSH, CHAFFINCH, GREENFINCH, LINNET, SERIN and CORN BUNTING were involved in the movement. Perhaps my best pull was a trio of ALPINE ACCENTORS.

Alpine Accentors

Corn Bunting

Common Chaffinch

European Greenfinch

Song Thrush

I’d have loved to multitask that morning and pay more attention to the passerines without detracting from the seabirds, but this was going to be my one seawatch for the trip and I was determined to make the most of it.

After about two hours the shearwater movement really slowed, and I was no longer adding new species. Mission had been accomplished with views of double-digit Balearics, a couple coming rather close. I could only imagine how this headland might produce during a storm with westerlies.

Speaking of pelagic birds, I should mention that there is a local operation that does offer inshore pelagic trips. The company name is Mar Ilimitado out of Sagres harbor. I inquired about a trip, but my weekday visit so late in the season would prohibit us from meeting the minimum number of participants required to run the trip, which is only four persons. Look them up if you want to get on the water and chum for storm-petrels and other tubenoses.

By mid-morning the sun was really starting to cook, which meant that the larger raptors would soon be lifting off for the day. The best-known local hawk watch site is called Cabranosa, a very small hill (a mound of sand, really) a mere 2.5 miles from the lighthouse. I checked in with the counters there to find that not much had been happening yet, which was just as well because I had scheduled a COVID test in the town of Lagoa for midday. By the time I detoured for the test and grabbed lunch, I returned to Cabranosa at 2pm. My timing was perfect, as hundreds of EURASIAN GRIFFONS were circling overhead. This is peak migration time for the griffons, and their kettles often contain other species. Through the afternoon they were joined by fellow vultures EGYPTIAN, CINEREOUS, and RUPPELL’S. BOOTED and BONELLI’S EAGLES made appearances, as did HEN HARRIER, EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, RED KITE, COMMON BUZZARD, EURASIAN KESTREL, and PEREGRINE FALON. It was a fantastic two hours of nonstop raptor viewing. I could not have been more thrilled.

Eurasian Griffon

more griffons!

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Hen Harrier

Booted Eagle

The habitat at Cabranosa is dry, sandy and dominated by pines

The skies emptied of birds around 4pm, so it was time to move on to the next endeavor. For such a short trip, especially for my first time birding mainland Europe, I did not have much of a target list. I was just happy to see whatever was around. Those Balearic Shearwaters were on the short list, as was European Golden-Plover. I had dipped on a couple Euro GPs in the northeast USA but otherwise had never really had a shot at seeing this bird before. Given my affinity for shorebirds and the allure of golden-plovers in general, I was determined to find some. There is a somewhat reliable farm field a stone’s throw from Cabranosa called Vale Santo which would be my best shot. Upon arrival to the field, which looked as if it had recently been tilled, I came across a variety of pipits working the area. MEADOW PIPIT was the dominant species, though a massive, almost thrush-like bird stood out from the crowd and seemed to prefer the drier plots – RICHARD’S PIPIT. One WATER PIPIT also briefly joined the fray. Across the street flocks of EURASIAN SKYLARKS were calling, and a few THEKLA’S LARKS were cooperative as well.

Advancing up the road I finally heard a plover-like call and spotted a flock of EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS working the most recently turned soil. Moving in for a closer look I counted 95 in a rather tight group. A long-awaited lifer, I was going to enjoy and study these birds until dusk. From a North American perspective, I noticed pot-bellied birds with strong yellowish plumage tones, as expected. The wings appeared a bit longer than I had anticipated. Leg length was difficult to judge thanks to the uneven ground. Perhaps the most striking feature to my eye was the plain face with beady dark eyes and a dark spot on the rear auriculars, much less contrast than we see from the dark caps and white supercilia of our American Golden-Plovers at this time of year.

Flock of European Golden-Plovers

Just after sunset it was time for a final flock count to ensure I hadn’t missed anyone. Scanning beyond the edge of the flock, four separate plovers popped out of nowhere, appearing from obstructed furrows onto higher ground. I did a quick double take upon immediately realizing that these were not golden-plovers at all but EURASIAN DOTTEREL, another life bird and one near the top of my wish list for the entire continent of Europe. Bird of the trip. After not more than a minute or so in view, they settled back into their divots and disappeared from view except for the top half of one bird.

Eurasian Dotterel

That wrapped up a phenomenal day of migration birding, all within just 1.5 square miles/3.7 square kilometers! From seawatch and morning flight to raptor migration to a touch of shorebirding, this small area delivered a one-stop-shop for all my preferred birding styles.

Thursday would be my final day in the field, and I had one more sought-after target for which to search. Turdus happens to be one of my favorite genera in the world, though I haven’t totally figured out why I am so drawn to these thrushes. Perhaps it is a combination of familiarity (American Robin) combined with vagrancy potential (i.e. Redwing and Fieldfare where I live), plus the fact that there are some really snazzy species out there (see Rufous-backed Robin, Taiwan Thrush, and Red-legged Thrush, among others). Turdus are also very widespread, naturally occurring on five continents (only introduced or vagrants to Australia, and not at all on Antarctica), and there are many island endemic species. In fact, there are some 87 species of Turdus thrushes worldwide.

Which brings me to Ring Ouzel, a crisp black-and-white European thrush. I do not believe that this species breeds in Portugal, but it does occur as a migrant from October into April. There had been recent reports from the coastal scrub around the peninsula, so I spent this morning birding that habitat. I couldn’t pull an ouzel but did manage more satisfying experiences with many of the common landbirds, including confiding views of a GARDEN WARLBER and accidentally flushing a LONG-EARED OWL. I finally added a couple SHORT-TOED SNAKE-EAGLES as they hunted the area for a while.

Short-toed Snake-Eagle

Eurasian Hoopoe

With sights set on a return to the Ria de Alvor for the afternoon, I left Sagres and began working my way back towards Lisbon. Sagres itself lacks a large marsh/estuary for shorebirds, so you have to follow the coast a bit eastward to discover prime shorebird (and tourist) habitat. On my way out of town I stopped by the fish dock for fresh-caught lunch and cold beer. The fishing activity here attracted some 500+ large gulls, nearly all of which were YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS of the michahellis subspecies group. I could only pull two LESSER BLACK-BACKEDs from the group, which was really surprising to me since Ria de Alvor, less than 20 miles away, had a nearly even split between the two species. I took advantage of the opportunity to study and photograph the YLGUs, which was another lifer for me this trip.

Yellow-legged Gulls

Sagres harbor

By the time I arrived on the western side of the Ria de Alvor estuary it was already 3pm, so I would spend the rest of the day scouring the shoreline, shellfish farms, and marshes for shorebirds and gulls. The activity and diversity here was much increased compared to my experience on the eastern side two days prior. Shorebirds were well-represented with 20 species tallied, personal highlights being KENTISH PLOVER, both Old World godwits, and killer views of NORTHERN LAPWING. The small/medium gulls were also abundant here, in strong contrast to Sagres. Many dozen MEDITERRANEAN, AUDOUIN’S, and BLACK-HEADED GULLS were present. I was a touch too far west for Slender-billed Gulls, which start to appear regularly once you get east of Faro. As the sun set, a pair of WATER RAILS put on a show along a creek edge.

Common Redshank

With a mid-morning flight out of Lisbon the following day, I decided to drive most of the way that evening and booked an Airbnb in Setubal for $36. Worth noting, my experience at Lisbon airport was quite positive both coming and going. On arrival I did have to wait in two lines: about 1hr 15min at customs/immigration and another 45 minutes at the rental car counter. Neither of those waits are atrocious, though it felt like forever since I was in a hurry to get on the road. Everything was clearly signed and organized; the reason for backup was simply traveler volume. The way back was even simpler. The rental car return was easy to find, and not having to check a bag I was able to proceed directly to security thanks to easy online uploading of my negative COVID test. The lines for security and customs/immigration were almost nonexistent. I had plenty of time to eat and relax before boarding.

One quick note regarding the logistics of COVID testing in Portugal. I used SYNLAB, which has many test sites nationwide, particularly in the Algarve. My appointment for a rapid antigen test was easy to book via the app, and the reporting process via emailed PDF was super quick. This file was then uploaded from my phone to the United Airlines app for approval. Also worth exploring for convenience are self-tests that can be purchased by mail in the US before travel and carried with you until it is time for return testing. However, you need to make sure that these tests are accepted by your airline and the US government, so do your homework before you spend the money.

This trip was such a blast and success that I am itching to get back and further explore the area during a future autumn, probably earlier in the season. I only reached a fraction of the coastal spots I had intended to visit. Initial plans had me covering the Algarve coast all the way to the Spanish border, hitting various estuaries along the way for more shorebirds and gulls. I had even entertained the west coast and the inland Castro Verde area, the latter for bustards and sandgrouse. But clearly I was so satisfied with the southwest corner that I did not need to leave! Another advantage of Sagres is the charming nature of the small town & environs. There are no tall hotels nor apartment buildings nor large resorts here in contrast to the larger tourist towns to the east such as Lagos and Portimao. I would imagine that these places can be quite hectic during summer beach season. My next visit to the Iberian Peninsula will likely be September of 2022 as tour leader for Connecticut Audubon Society’s EcoTravel, where we will focus on the Andalusia region in the south for superb autumn migration!

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