Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Post #104 - Let's give the most common birds some love!

Sorry for the long time between posts! Our LA > SF move complicated things a bit! Here we go!

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I am an unabashed ABA lister (or at least as unabashed as my budget and often conflicting photography interest permit!). Those playing similar listing games at the patch, county, or state levels certainly understand the premium that is placed on finding unusual species within your area of interest as that's what the listing game is all about. Rarities will always and understandably engender an excitement that more ubiquitous species like Mallards and Rock Doves will never - and that's OK.

Anyway, while it is difficult to get excited about super common birds from a purely birding perspective, I totally appreciate them from a photography standpoint. I think of it as a good challenge to present common birds in ways that people might not have have before seen. Take this shot for example. When was the last time you saw a Rock Dove in anything resembling a truly natural setting? This is a bit deceiving as it was taken at an urban park in Los Angeles, and I did have to maneuver my perspective around a bit so as to keep the branch but to avoid the cement edge to the man made pond. But, if you didn't know anything about the usually urban circumstances of this bird, you could totally imagine that this shot was taken on the edge of some real lake in some natural location.

Rock Dove - Columba livia
Los Angeles County, California, March 2017
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 2x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/8, ISO 800

Sometimes all it takes is a bit of personality to see a common bird in a new light. Such was the case with this particular Herring Gull. I actually headed Revere Beach in Boston to shoot Piping Plover chicks on that day. This bird appeared as soon as I set foot onto the sand. He walked directly towards me and just started cackling in my face, apparently in search of a handout. I thought he'd make a fun subject, so I cracked off this frame of him squawking at me. I think this result shows his assertive personality perfectly! Super detailed headshots are always a fantastic way to show common birds in new and interesting ways.

Herring Gull - Larus argentatus
Revere Beach, Boston, Massachusetts, July 2011
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Here's another common bird that I tried to present in a different light - literally. I took my dog to the dog park in Long Beach one evening when I saw this guy floating peacefully on the adjacent pond. My rig was in the car from a photo outing earlier in the day, so I grabbed it and went to work. I deliberately kept the view wide and underexposed the frame so as to generate a wide swath of dark water. Here it's the photographic technique more than anything else that renders the photograph of this common bird effectively dramatic!

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps
Long Beach, California, April 2017
Canon 100-00mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 640

Next up is this female Mallard that I photographed in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx in New York City a few years back. It too was in an urban pond. I would have ideally had a bit less lens (which would have let me capture even more of the water), but I was super stoked with the result nonetheless. I actually love how her golden-brown tones blend with the yellow water as reflected from the surrounding fall foliage. So, yeah, this a bird we often overlook, but, given the right attention and presentation, she can really shine!

Mallard (female) - Anus platyrhynchos
Bronx, New York City, October 2011
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Anyway, and without going into too much detail, I'm currently nursing another calf injury, albeit on the other leg this time. This not only complicated our move from LA to SF, but has kept me generally at home for the past two weeks. I did finally make it out to Half Moon Bay on Sunday for my first Bay Area birding/photography outing. My mobility is still a bit limited, so I decided I'd photograph whatever I could find within about 200 yards of the parking area. Despite much foot traffic on the trail, I did manage to approach this Song Sparrow for a few seconds. I was very happy with the result, a result which actually precipitated the idea for this entry. 

Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia
Half Moon Bay, California, May 2017
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/1250 at f/9, ISO 800
*I closed down lens since I was very close 
and wanted more depth of field on the bird

One last note about common species; They're common for a reason. Most of them are incredibly adaptable generalists that can thrive in a wide range of situations and habitats. Like it or not, those species most able to adapt to human wrought environmental changes are best positioned thrive into the future. So, for that reason, common birds are at least deserving of an evolutionary nod from us.

That's it for now. I am scheduled for my first pelagic this weekend, so hopefully I'll have something exciting to report on that front. I've never done a spring pelagic up here before (minus the cruise ship from last year), so it will be interesting to see how unfolds!

As always, please do consider following this blog if you like the content. You can do that on the right hand side of this page, just below the blog archive section! Thanks!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Post #103 - Goodbye LA, hello San Francisco! Peregrine Falcon showcase!

Wow, it seems like an eternity since I wrote on this blog! All of the Belize/Guatemala entries were written in the days following that trip, so I've had a bit of down time since then.

First I want to say 'thanks' for sticking with me as we crossed the 100-post mark a few weeks ago! I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the Central American narrative at that time, so I figured I would make some form of little announcement now. I started this blog in February of 2015, and the writing has been fairly steady (a bit less than once/week) since then. I am always worried that I am going to run out of content at some point. Thankfully that day hasn't come yet. As long as I keep taking photos, I imagine I'll be able to scrape out something for you!

Sanderling - Calidris alba
Canon 400mm f/4 DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Thinking about the where the blog has been and where it is going, I am going to change the tagline from "Using birds to explore the natural world" to something a bit more descriptive of my actual content. Right now I'm leaning towards something more fun, something like, "Bird watching, bird photography, bike-birding, and all general nonsense in between". I am open to any suggestions you might have on this front, so let's hear 'em!

Also I have created a new and improved Facebook page to disseminate content, updates, photos, videos, and everything else. It's called Dorian Anderson Birding and Bird Photography. Please check it out and "Like" it to keep abreast of what's happening!

Mostly though I wanted to make a quick mention of my move as the movers are coming in a few hours. I have not hidden the fact that the move to LA was tough, mainly because of the number of people, the lack of personal space, and the fact that its nearly 20 miles of concrete in every direction from where I've lived for the past 2 years. All that being said, there are a lot of things I am going to miss, the weather, the great birding, and the SoCal birding community among them. Most of my frustrations were on the photographic front since I was so used to having my own space to shoot in New England. I will say that the last 4 months here have been very photographically productive, so I think LA just required A LOT of time to get used to. It's actually a bit frustrating as just when I think I finally have the light, crowd patterns, traffic flow, shooting locations, rules, and so on figured out here, it is time to move again. I am certainly ready to go, but I've kind of made my peace with the SoCal monster in the last few weeks. I mean, I have had regular access two Peregrine Falcon nests in that time!

Male Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus
Los Angeles, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Same male
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Same male
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 400

His female mate
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/4, ISO 1600

Male again
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Female from the other pair
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

As for San Francisco, we'll actually be living just south of the city in San Mateo. I am so stoked that well be right on SF Bay which means a return to bike-birding! My bike is all tuned up and ready to go. I'll do most of my bike-birding on the bay, but I hope to venture over the coastal mountains to Half Moon Bay (20 Miles) as well. While I need a car to haul my photography gear around, I plan to do quite a bit of bike-birding on the cloudy days when I generally forgo photography. With the bay so close, it'll be easy to sneak out for an hour here or there, something that it was impossible to do here in LA since we lived in the middle of so much sprawl.

San Mateo outlined in red

So, that's what's going on here. I am super stoked to be moving to another great birding area. The access to Half Moon Bay will be awesome, particularly the pelagic birding from that port. I am also going to look into getting an inflatable kayak to paddle about the Pillar Point Harbor. That will give me an entirely new shooting opportunity. I expect there will be some amount of adjustment period to my new surrounds, but, as I went to college at Stanford in Palo Alto, I have a decent base of Bay Area knowledge already. So, with that I'll sign off, pack up the computer, and hit the road!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot! I got a ABA bird two weeks ago in San Diego. White Wagtail for ABA seen #716! This is a VERY distant record shot!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Post #102 - Guatemala, Part 4 (of 4) - Birding Lake Atitlán and the volcanic highlands, Guatemala summary

This is the fourth and final post recapping my recent birding trip to Guatemala. We're in the home stretch, but there's plenty of birding excitement left, don't worry! At the end of the last installment, I flew from Flores and the Petén lowlands (400 feet of elevation) to the highlands at Guatemala City (4,900 feet of elevation). Driving west out of that metropolis, we gained yet more elevation before dropping into a huge, water-filled basin to reach the shores of Lake Atitlán at ~5,100 feet. With a depth of 1,120 feet, the lake is the deepest in Central America. Now surrounded by 3 volcanoes, the lake bed is itself a caldera that resulted from a mega-eruption over 80,000 years ago (Wiki). Several small towns now dot its shores, and the entire area is a poplar tourist and adventure destination.A

Topographic map of Guatemala

A view of Lake Atitlán from high on the slopes.
The cones are inactive volcanos.

We shacked up at the Hotel Jardines del Lago in the town of Panajachel. The stunning property is right on Atitlán's shores, and it provided a comfortable and centralized birding base for our 3-day stay. The hotel was also - and not by coincidence - hosting the 2017 Guatemalan Bird Forum, a gathering of tourism ministry folks, international tour operators, and international birders. The goal of the forum was to bring these constituents together to discuss how to increase bird-based tourism in Guatemala, an end that The Audubon Society has been helping to further. The general idea, like similar Audubon-directed efforts in Colombia, is to help local communities establish ecotourism as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly revenue source. The hope is that those communities will then have the incentive to conserve that revenue source against more invasive, less sustainable forms of economic development such as logging, mining, and oil drilling. Here is an Audubon snippet about the program. Guide training is a fundamental pillar of the Audubon program. All the guides who escorted us around were great, and I fully expect them to get even better as they improve their already serviceable English.

Gardens behind our hotel

View of lake and volcanoes from our hotel

The most recently trained and certified guide crop

I had two morning birding outings, each followed by afternoon presentations and panel discussions at the hotel. The first outing took me me to Parque Ecológica Corazón del Bosque (Heart of the Forest Ecopark, loosely) high above the lake. The habitat was mixed oak and pine forest and was strikingly similar to that in the mountains of Southeastern Arizona. The birdlife supported that notion with Red-faced Warbler, Steller's Jay, Greater Pewee, and Yellow-eyed Junco appearing on our walk. We also observed - in their usual ranges - species that occasionally wander into Arizona: White-eared Hummingbird, Tufted Flycatcher, Brown-backed Solitaire, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Slate-throated Redstart. It's always good to familiarize oneself with common birds in one place as they could show up as rarities in another! A full checklist from that stop can be seen here. We made a second stop in similar habitat on the way back, and that checklist is here.

Chiricahuas? Nope - Guatemalan Highlands!

Crescent-chested Warbler (backlit, heavy crop, UGH!)

We also managed to find a number of highland specialties, including Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-collared Robin, Rufous-browed Wren, and Pink-headed Warbler. It is here worth nothing that while Guatemala does not have any true endemics, it does have a number of highland endemics that it shares with its neighbors. While the maps below show that these species can be seen elsewhere, finding all of them above Lake Atitlán was a fairly straightforward process. Horned Guan is also in the Atitlán area though I didn't go to those areas on my two highland birding outings.

Ranges of selected/representative Highland Endemics

Blue-throated Motmot

Rufous-collared Robin

Rufous-Browed Wren

Pink-headed Warbler

My field trip on the second day took me - by boat - across the lake to reach Los Tarrales, a private preserve with onsite lodging. The preserve literally runs from the bottom of a volcano to the top, an elevation gain of several thousand feet. As a result of this elevation change, Terrales encompasses many different habitats. Over 340 species have been recorded on the property, so there's no shortage of birds. Our outing was confined to the lower portions of the preserve. We turned up approximately 70 species, 65 of which are shown on my checklist. Highlights included White Hawk, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Yellow-naped Parrot, Northern Bentbill, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, and White-winged Tanager. We hardly dented the place so I can only image what other birds are hiding in the preserve!

Birding at Los Terrales

After returning to the hotel, I took a short walk through Panajachel. The town was charming, a perfect example of Guatemala Highland living. The Guatemalan Highlands are world famous for their colorful, woven textiles, and these were on full display in the street stalls as I wandered my way around.  

Panajachel Sreet

Fresh made tortillas!

I must say that I really liked the rhythm of life in Panajachel and more generally in Guatemala. Life in the US is largely about consumption and competition; It's a rat race unlike any other in the world. Life in Guatemala, by comparison, seems more concerned with family and faith. Everyone I met was incredible friendly and displayed a warmth, particularly on the Panajachel streets, that I will never forget. I saw more smiling faces in Guatemala than in any other country I've ever visited.

I know that some readers might find all of this at odds with their perceptions of Guatemala. One of the things we discussed in the afternoon sessions at the Bird Forum was why some foreigners, but particularly Americans, view Guatemala as unsafe for travel. Guatemala has had some issues in the past, but these episodes were generally confined to the largest cities. This is no different that anywhere else on earth, the US included; Guatemala City isn't terribly different from Chicago at the end of the day. Birder aren't going to spend much - if any - time in Guatemala City, so whatever happens there (if anything) it's unlikely to affect them. I felt completely safe leaving my expensive camera in my hotel rooms at all the places we stayed. I can imagine that theft could be an issue if I left my rig exposed on the back seat of a car while eating lunch, but - again - that's no different that anywhere on earth.

The point in all of this is that Guatemala is a fantastic destination for birders and more general tourists included. Birders will find more than enough species to keep them occupied, and the Mayan sites and contemporary Guatemalan culture should provide sufficient distraction to keep non-birders interested. I personally had 236 species listed for my stay, and I kno that our cumulative group list was closer to 300. Think about this; It took me 4 (FOUR!) posts to chronicle my 6 days in the country, so there certainly isn't a lack of things to see and do! Again, the Petén region couples particularly well with Belize, so those looking to visit a couple of countries in one hit should keep that in mind. With that I'll leave you and wish you happy travels, travels that will hopefully included both Belize and Guatemala moving forward!

Goodbye from Yaxha!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Post #101 - Guatemala, Part 3 (of 4) - Petén birding: Las Guacamayas

The Guatemala birding beat rolls on! In this third installment we're going to visit the Estación Biológica Las Guacamayas, a remote research installation that has been converted into one of the coolest Ecolodges I've ever visited. If you missed the first two posts in this Guatemala series, it is advised to check out my recaps of birding and site-seeing at the Mayan Site of Yaxha (Post #99) and Tikal (Post #100). 

Leaving Tikal, we reached Flores, a small, lakeside community well worth a visit if passing nearby. The island portion of the town will appease non-birders. It is very cute and a great place to pause after a morning of birding at Tikal or elsewhere. The island's perimeter can easily be walked in half an hour, and it is possible to hire a local boat to go for an extended ride on the lake should one so desire. Flores had an authentic Guatemalan charm that I didn't see replicated until I reached the Guatemalan Highlands at Lake Atitlán (next post!).

Flores (stock photo)

Lunch fun in Flores

We left Flores and, just outside of town, turned onto a dirt road. I thought that we were making a quick birding detour, but after 30 mins on the dirt track, I realized that the bumpy, primitive track was actually the main the route to our next destination. When all was done, we spent 1.5 hours on what seemed like the dirt road to nowhere. We finally reached a small settlement where we found these waiting for us. Check out the video to see what our ride looked like! 


Once in the boats, we didn't see a single sign of civilization until 25 minutes later when we rounded a river bend and our place of lodging came into view. Snuggled between the jungle hillside and the river, Las Guacamayas was like something out of a dream. We docked and unloaded to find ourselves in a jungle paradise. It was a bit late in the day for birding, but a nice variety of hummingbirds kept us entertained as we drank fresh squeezed fruit juice as a welcome.

Las Guacamayas = Scarlet Macaws

View from the deck. Pretty sweet, huh?

We rose before sunrise the following morning and climbed the steep bluff behind the lodge for some sunrise birding. Cloud cover squashed our sunrise hopes, but the view from the overlook was still stunning!

After breakfast we piled into the boats and continued downriver a bit to look for Scarlet Macaws. Beaching the boats, we hiked into the jungle on a rudimentary motorcycle track. Twenty minutes of walking produces jaw-dropping views of the stunning birds! Their raucous calls rang out across the jungle in the most primitive and unforgettable of ways.

2 of 10 Scarlet Macaws that we found

After the macaws, we returned to the lodge, packed up our stuff, and boarded the boats to make our final exit from Guacamayas. One that exit, we picked up Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, a bird that was a lifer for even one of our guides. I rolled the entire morning into a single eBird checklist that can be found here. Other notables included Muscovy, Stripe-throated Hermit, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Linneated Woodpecker, Red-capped Manakin, and Crimson-collared Tanager.

Red-capped Manakin

The boats delivered us to our bus, and, after the return 1.5 hours on the dirt roads and a bit more paved distance, we reached the Flores airport where we boarded a small charter plane. We reached the highlands at Guatemala City after an hour flight. There we boarded another bus for the 3 hour drive to Lake Atitlán and the 2017 Gutatemala Bird Forum. It is at that location and event that I will pick up next time Please stay tuned!

Leaving Petén....

....flying over Guatemala City.....

...and finally landing!

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Post #100 - Guatemala, Part 2 (of 4) - Petén birding: Tikal

OK, let's continue with the recap of my recent Belize and Guatemala birding extravaganza! As a quick backdrop, Post #99 treats my 3 days in Belize and Post #100 describes my time birding at the ancient Mayan site of Yaxha. To get the full run-up to this post and at least a bit of background on Guatemala's Petén region, I suggest you give those a look if you haven't already. Now, on with the show!

Collared Aracari at Tikal

Departing Yaxha, we drove less than two hours to reach Tikal, the most famous and recognizable Mayan site in Guatemala and possibly in all of Central America. Tikal thrived from 500 BC to 1000 AD, roughly in-line with the appreciated timetable for Yaxha. Tikal was, however, almost twice as large with an estimated population of nearly 90,000 at its peak. The jungle generally kept an abandoned Tikal largely off-radar until the first explorers visited around 1850, and it wasn't until the 1950's that any sort of formal excavation began. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, and the excavation process today continues as funds become available. Below you can see a motorcycle being used to power a ramshackle pulley system to deliver restoration materials to the top of one of the temples. So yeah, money is in short supply.

We stayed at the wonderful Jungle Lodge right in Tikal National Park. The lodge is well-equipped and suitable for all sorts of travelers. A late afternoon bird walk initiated from the lodge yielded Black-headed Trogon, Masked Tityra, Ocellated Turkey, Red-capped Manakin, Plain Xenops, and Smoky-brown Woodpecker (full eBird checklist). Some folks heard a distant Pheasant Cuckoo, but we never got a glimpse of it. The cuckoo and Black Catbird are apparently fairly reliable at the old, long-since grown-over airstrip not far from the lodge. So, serious listers keep that mind!
Jungle Lodge

Jungle Lodge

Jungle Lodge dining area

Black-headed Trogon

The following morning, we visited the archeological site. It was magnificent, an engineering and building marvel on par with the Egyptians Pyramids. It would be easy to spend an entire day exploring the site. We stuck mainly to the largest structures due to a tight morning timetable, but I am already wondering when I can make it back to Guatemala to explore the rest of the site!

Temple 1

Plaza between Temples 1 and 2

Temple 3 (I think) through the trees

Temples 1, 2, and 3 from Temple 4

Fans of Star War might recognize this scene
from the original movie, "Episode IV: Star Wars".
Millennium Falcon flying over Temple 3!

The scenery at Tikal was equalled only by the birdlife. Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, Collared Aracari, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Golden-winged Warbler, Gray-headed Tanager, and Olive-backed Euphonia lead an eBird checklist that tallied 61 species. The bird of the morning though was Orange-breasted Falcon, a known breeder that nests right on the temples. Lighting conditions were terrible, but I did manage to squeeze out a few shots of the magnificent raptor in addition to some of the other birds mentioned above. 

Orange-breasted Falcon - Falco deiroleucus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 400, handheld
**This is a very heavy crop warranted only
by the rarity of this particular species**

Bare-throated Tiger-heron - Tigrisoma mexicanum
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Ocellated Turkey 

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Wow, I have a lot more to say about Guatemala than I thought. What I originally thought would be 2 posts is now going to take 4. In the next post, the third in the that series, we'll venture super-duper into the Petén Jungle, so deep that we'll need to take a river boat to reach our next birding destination. It's so awesome and top secret that you'll have to wait for that next installment for the big reveal!

Oh wait! I almost forget this guy - Señor (or maybe Señorita!) Coati - patrolling the Tikal grounds!