Sunday, January 14, 2018

Post #127 - Ecuador introduction: Preparation for your trip

I recently returned from two exciting weeks in Ecuador, and I am going to use the next few posts to share my experiences with you. This was my third trip to South America, the pervious two being to Colombia in 2016, so I had at least some experience with the continent and its birds before this trip. Those Colombia trips were organized by the Audubon Society, so I didn't have to worry about any of the logistics. In contrast, I organized every aspect of this most recent Ecuador adventure, a personal trip for my wife and me. I handled the flights, rental cars, route planning, lodging, and all birding and photography logistics. What initially seemed an overwhelming task wasn't actually that bad, and I am going in the next few post to lay out exactly what we did with the goal that readers could replicated some or all it should they desire.

Me and Sonia

Our trip was split into two discrete parts, 8 days around Quito/Tandayapa/Mindo in the northwestern highlands and 5 days in the Amazon Basin and Yasuni National Park in the lower, eastern reaches of the country. I'll discuss those areas in greater detail in subsequent posts, but for now I'll give you some general information that might help in planning an Ecuador trip. These will be, in no particular order:

Travel logistics and Health preparations/considerations
Rental Cars and Navigation
Field Guides
A note about eBird checklists

A few caveast: First, I'm sure that I've forgotten something important, so I'm sorry ahead of time for that. Second, this post is specific to my experience, and I cannot elaborate on that which I did not do (use the buses, e.g.) So, feel free to ask me any questions, but please realize there is a lot that I don't know. If you do have a question, please use the comment sections to ask it. That way everyone will benefit from my response - assuming I have anything useful to say.

Ecuador. Central Andean region in gray.
The general areas I visited are indicated.

Travel logistics and Health preparations/considerations
American travelers do not need a formal visa to travel to Ecuador though you will clearly need a passport. No vaccinations are required, but Hepatitis A and B, Yellow Fever, Rabies, Typhoid, and Influenza are recommended. If you're entering from a country that has Yellow Fever (not the US), you'll need proof of YF vaccination. Malaria is present but rare. Zika is probably present as well though hard data is lacking. Your best bet to avoid the already slim chances of Malaria/Zika is to wear long sleeves/pants and use insect repellent with at least 25% DEET. I didn't get any shots beyond what I already had (tetanus, MMR, etc). I hardly even used inset repellent; Mosquitos just don't seem to like me. 

I drank bottled or filtered water the entire time I was in the country. Most lodges, hotels, and the like provided filtered water. Those with particularly sensitive digestive systems might also want to avoid eating salad or uncooked veggies as those will have been washed in local water. Having intestinal issues on the first day of a 10-day trip would be no fun.

Also be aware that Quito sits at 9,300 feet of elevation, so the air is much thinner. Yanacocha sits at 11,500, and the true 'paramo' even higher. Please be advised of that if you have had issues at high elevation in the past, asthma included.

Geography and elevation
Looking at the topographic map above, it's easy to see that the Andes occupy the middle third of the country with lower elevations sloping away on each side. I highlight this as the distribution of the country's birds varies as much along elevational clines as it does across geographic regions. No only that, but there are also huge differences between the Eastern and Western Andean Slopes. For example, Golden Tanager is found between 900-2000 meters on both slopes while the superficially similar Silver-throated Tanager is found between 500-1400 meters on the western slope only. Golden Tanager's range is strictly elevation dependent, but Silver-throated's range is dependent on elevation AND slope. So, pay attention to location and elevation: It will make identifying birds much easier!

Golden Tanager - Tangara arthus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/100 at f/7.1, ISO 1600.
Note: taken in Colombia

Rental Cars, roads, and navigation
We rented an SUV for the 8 days that we were in the highlands. It was expensive, ~$650 for that time, but worth every penny as it let us comfortably explore the more interesting, unpaved, back roads (Nono-Mindo, e.g.). Most of those back roads can be passed in a smaller, sedan-type car, albeit much more slowly and with much more bouncing around. With the SVU, we didn't think twice about road conditions; We just plowed ahead. I have unlimited foreign data on my phone, so we just used that for navigation. The well-known birding spots were all straightforward to find as almost all of them were off of just 1 or 2 main roads. Everything is so close together that getting around isn't that challenging (I'll show exact maps with locations in the next post specific to the highlands). Local drivers were fine, no more or less courteous/aggressive than anywhere else. 

Our Suzuki on the famous Nono-Mindo Road

Uber operates in Ecuador. We didn't use it, but it looked like a very cheap way to get around, particularly Quito. 

As for the Amazon Basin, if you go there your lodge will organize everything for you, including the necessary internal flight from Quito to Coca. From there you'll get into a powered boat, again at the direction and organization of your host lodge. There aren't any roads so you haven't any other choice!

All the expected sorts of lodging are available in Ecuador. We stayed in hotels our 2 nights in Quito and lodges and Airbnbs for our 7 nights in the highlands. We were also in a lodge for our 5 days in the Amazon Basin. I will cover specific lodges in subsequent posts. As expected, lodging and food are inexpensive compared to the US. There looked to be many cheap, roadside hotel/motel-type places, but I can't speak to those since we didn't use them.

Ecuador uses the US Dollar as currency. It is also worth noting that not everywhere - lodges included - is set up to take credit cards, so be aware of that. I actually had to wire money internationally ahead of time to confirm/hold my reservation at two of my lodges (Alambi, Tandayapa). I carried quite a bit of cash as I wasn't sure how easy it would be to withdraw it once I was there (my stash covered me so I never found out). 

Safety was a non-issue as far as I could tell. Everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly and willing to help us when we needed it (i.e. directions). I tried not to leave my camera gear in the car unattended for extended periods of time, but that's the same everywhere I go, domestic travel included. I had no reservations about walking around in remote areas with my expensive gear on display. That's not to say robberies don't happen, but I didn't feel threatened, targeted, or uneasy at any point.

Be careful - cows
often wander into the road!

Cell phone service was spotty outside of towns. Most lodges have WiFi though it is much slower than anything that we have here in the states. It is also here worth noting that communication generally happens slower in Ecuador than it does in the US. What I mean is that it often took 2 or 3 emails to lodges and other relevant entities before I was able to get firm answers and secure exact dates/times/services. Customer service simply does not happen in real time the way it does in the US. Please be aware of this and have the appropriate patience. Start planning your trip well in advance to allow for the slower pace of communication.

Field Guides
There are two books or field guides that you should consider buying before any Ecuador trip. The first of these is the industry standard and downright incredible "The Birds of Ecuador: Field Guide" by Robert Ridgely and Paul Greenfield. In full disclosure, that book is big and heavy; It is more than 2 inches thick and weighs more than 3 pounds. The plates are absolutely stunning, and the text and maps, located in their own sections, are very streamlined and easy to navigate. Some people buy this book, break it apart, and have it rebound into two separate entities, a field-friendly collection of plates and a larger, less portable bit that stays in the hotel room as a more detailed reference. NOTE: THIS BOOK DOES NOT INCLUDE THE GALAPAGOS!

The second book is a smaller option, the "Fieldbook of the Bird of Ecuador" by Miles McMullin and Lelis Navarette. This book is small enough to fit in one's pocket and serves as a nice field reference. Be aware, this book is very hard to find in the states but does make for a nice, local purchase in Ecuador. It is a bit information dense with so many species on each page, but that's the only way they were ever going to get all the birds into a single, portable volume. THIS BOOK DOES INCLUDE THE GALAPAGOS.

A note about eBird checklists
From a birding perspective, the most important thing that any visiting birder needs to know is that there are A LOT of species in Ecuador, about 1600 to be precise. More impressive still is that those species are packed into just 109,000 square miles, an area comparable to either Oregon (98K) or Colorado (104K). Though that species total might seem totally overwhelming, the trick is to get an unidentified species into a family and go from there. I found eBird's site-specific checklists to be invaluable as an identification aid as they greatly narrowed down the species that I could expect to find at each specific birding site; When those checklists were cross-referenced with field guides, I was able to identify 95% of the birds I saw. JUST REMEMBER TO DOWNLOAD THOSE CHECKLISTS WHEN YOU HAVE WIFI! Getting into the field without them is a pain in the ass. I will have a bit more to say about this in follow-up posts.

OK, that's it for now. Hopefully this helps you at least start planning your Ecuador adventure!

Next time - Birding Quito's Reserva Yanacocha - Please stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Post #126 - A day of birding around San Salvador, El Salvador with super guide Julio Acosta

Well, here it is, the first Speckled Hatchback post of 2018! This will be the fourth full year for the blog, and I am going to kick it off with a very quick post about birding in El Salvador. Wait a second? Wasn't I just in Ecuador for 2 weeks? I was, but I was also in El Salvador in-transit. As the Ecuador posts and the photos that will accompany them are going to take a lot of time to prepare, I am going to hop right into El Salvador in the interim. 

Located between Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. At just over 8000 square miles, El Salvador is comparable in size to the state of Massachusetts or the country of Slovenia. Roughly 550 species have been eBirded from the country, none of which are true endemics. However, El Salvador does share a number of regional endemics with the countries it borders, so there's no lack of neotropical birding excitement. Many North American migrants winter in El Salvador and surrounds, so those interested in neotropical migration might find the country a particularly interesting destination for that reason. For example, I saw 25 Tennessee Warblers in a morning of birding, a total that exceeded the number of Tennessee Warblers I've seen in the states in the last 10 years combined!

My visit to El Salvador actually occurred in the larger context of my Ecuador trip. As there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Quito, we (my wife and I) flew through San Salvador where we had 8-hour layovers on both the outgoing and returning legs. The outgoing layover (1pm to 9pm) didn't have enough daylight to make leaving the airport worthwhile, but, with the returning layover running from 7am to 3pm, we had a perfect window to get out and do some birding. Interestingly, and in preparation for the layover, I went into eBird to see what birding might be available near the airport. In looking through the recent sightings at nearby sights, many came from 'Julio Acosta ES Tour Guide'. As Julio provided his email on his eBird profile page (, I contacted him and arranged to have him guide us around during our extended layover.

Me and Julio

Before I get into birding specifics, I first want to say that Julio is an ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC guide. He knew all the local birds by sight and sound, and his more general knowledge of the natural world and the country was equally impressive. A former English teacher, Julio is perfectly fluent in the language, and his fun and laid-back personality ensures that he can get along with just about anyone. If you're thinking about hiring a bird guide in El Salvador, you absolutely must get in touch with Julio. He is your man!

Julio and a driver collected us from the airport at 7:00am, and we headed for Ecoparque El Espino on the west side of downtown San Salvador. Located at nearly 3000 feet (900 meters) of elevation and overlooking the city, the park was incredibly birdy. We arrived at 8am and had effectively non-stop action for the next 3.5 hours. Highlights included White-bellied Chachalaca, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (heard only), Gartered and Elegant Trogons, Lesson's Motmot, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, White-Throated Magpie-Jay, Bushy-crested Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, and Streak-back, Spot-breasted, and Altamira Orioles. I ended up with 53 species at that first stop (eBird checklist). A quick, second stop at the nearby Parque del Bicentanario, yielded a stunning view of the national bird, the Turquoise-browed Motmot (eBird checklist). When all was said and done, I tallied 61 species between the two locations. After that, it was back to the airport to make our connecting flight.

View of San Salvador from Ecoparque El Espino.
The hotspot is just 10-15 minutes from downtown.

El Salvador's birding is often - and understandably - overshadowed by that found in other, larger Central American countries. However, that doesn't mean there isn't great birding to be found in the country. While it would be possible to bird the entire country in a week, a birding visit to El Salvador is probably best coupled to a visit to another destination. Interestingly, Avianca allows layovers of up to 72 hours, so it would be very easy to drop into El Salvador for 3 days before continuing to somewhere else more distant. Alternatively, and because the country is so small, it is possible to fly in and out of San Salvador and spent 7-8 days birding El Salvador and the neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. It is worth noting that the dry season in El Salvador runs from November to May, so do think about that as you plan any potential visit.

For those with long layovers like we had, leaving the small San Salvador airport for a day's worth of birding is very straightforward but does cost a few bucks (El Salvador, like Ecuador, uses the $US). Importantly, a departure tax of $15 per person applies once one leaves the airport, and it is necessary to pay that tax BEFORE you leave the building. We went to the Avianca information desk as soon as we arrived and quickly dealt with the tax right then and there. The receipt from that tax allowed us to obtain our day visas at an additional cost of $10 per person. So, it cost us $50 (2 x $15 departure + 2 x $10 visas) to leave the airport for the day, but it was well worth it to spend a morning birding with Julio. Re-entering the airport was very easy. We showed up 1.5 hours before our flight and breezed our way to out gate with plenty of time to spare.

So, there it is; A quick morning of San Salvador birding turned into an entire blog post. I hope some of you will have the opportunity to visit El Salvador in the future. If you do, please find this post archived in the International Birding tab under the banner heading. It'll be waiting there for whenever you do finally make it to El Salvador!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Post #125 - California County Birding - By Bike!

I'm going to keep this short since I am prepping for an Ecuador trip that begins on Saturday! As I will be there through the end of the year, this will represent the last entry for 2017. Thanks for hanging in there with me through the third year of this blog. It's as much a personal birding journal as anything else, but hopefully some of you have found something interesting or entertaining to keep you coming back. Ecuador entries will materialize when I return, so please stay tuned for those. I should also, as I've done for the last two years, present my photographic highlights of the year, this being my most photographically productive ever. But for now, it's back to to the bicycle.

I last wrote about bike-birding two months ago, on October 9, just after I had added Dusky Warbler for San Mateo County bike bird #180. Since then I've added another 26 species to reach 206 for my home county, the most notable additions since last time being Red-footed Booby (2nd county record) and LeConte's Sparrow (1st county record), both in Half Moon Bay. Though I alluded to it in that last bike-birding post, I should state here that I have actually created a bike-specific eBird account for myself. I have had a ton of fun with it, most specifically using eBird's "Explore Data" feature to see what species I still need to grow my San Mateo bike-birding list. I use the data generated from that feature to plan my rides each week.

Additions to my San Mateo County Bike 
list since Dusky Warbler on Oct 9, 2017.

Red-Footed Booby, Half Moon Bay, CA
*This was taken from my kayak a few days
after I added the bird for my bike list.

As I have created a profile page for my bike-birding account, I was able to extract the following graphical data from it. This is presented in heat-map form where counties in which I have observed the most species are colored red; Those counties in which I have seen fewer receive correspondingly lighter colors, orange, for example.

It's pretty clear that I've focused on San Mateo, but I have ventured into neighboring counties a few times. For reference, it's 19 riding miles from my house to Lake Merced at the southern end of San Francisco County. Going the opposite direction, it's 17 riding miles to reach Palo Alto at the northeastern corner of Santa Clara County. What that means is that it's a non-trivial amount off riding (30-40 miles) just to reach and return from those neighboring counties. I plan to spend more time exploring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties moving forward, particularly as the days lengthen and I can get more birding time for the same amount of riding. I have also discovered that I can legally ride over the Dumbarton Bridge to reach the extreme southwestern corner of Alameda County on the other side of the bay. That's ~23 miles each way, so that's 46 just to reach and return from Alameda. As I ride about 14 miles an hour, that's 3+ hours of cranking. So, I gotta make that ride count!

What I hope this shows is just how much more challenging - and in my admittedly isolated, minority opinion - interesting local/county listing becomes when the bicycle is substituted for the car. I have basically given up local birding in the car as it is no longer satisfying. I really like the physical challenge that the bike presents, and I actually enjoy the increased logistics that come along with it. Today I went to Half Moon Bay (32 miles, 2000 feet of vertical climbing for the round trip) to try for Orchard Oriole and missed. I hardly cared though as I spent no money on gas, burned no fossil fuels, and got a great workout anyway.

Bike-birding field trip I led at Laguna Atascosa NWR as 
part of the Rio Grande Birding Festival this November

I'm not saying that we should all perpetually abandon cars in favor of bikes. Hell, I drove 3.5 hours to Santa Barbara two weeks ago to tick a Garganey that may or may not count towards my ABA list, and I almost always drive when I'm hauling my photography gear to and from shooting locations. But I do think that we birders should rethink the relative weight we place on local/county lists as generated through petroleum-powered means, particularly as much of that local/county birding can be done by bike instead. I totally understand that the bike isn't for everyone, but it should be possible for the community to deploy it more than the very little that we do now. It's a low-cost, healthy, environmentally-friendly, and challenging alternative to driving. It's also a hellava lot more satisfying and immeasurably more interesting than just sitting behind the wheel. But that's me. I curious what others think.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Post #124 - West Coast Winter Cruise Ship Pelagic - Petrels and Albatrosses in record numbers! Duck Photos too!

Many folks have already heard of the tremendous pelagic successes of the most recent West Coast repositioning ('repo') cruise, this particular edition running from Los Angeles to Vancouver from Wednesday, November 29th to Saturday, December 2nd. To get right to the point, the birding was incredible, specifically along the Oregon Coast where we found record numbers of Laysan Albatrosses (40-50), Short-tailed Albatrosses (5), and Mottled Petrels (~200). Not to be forgotten were 8 Cook's Petrels, a nice bonus on top of our already strong haul. This post is meant as a complement to Post #65, a very lengthy recap of the spring Repo Cruise that I took in May of last year. As that post is filled with all sorts of helpful and advisory information, I will use this post to supplement that one.

Our Route

The general idea of a repositioning cruise is that the cruise company (Princess) needs to move ships around depending upon where they are needed each season. For example, our boat from last year's May trip was used for warm weather cruises all winter (Mexico, Hawaii) before being repositioned to Vancouver in spring for Alaskan cruises during the summer. The beauty of the repo cruise is that the boat makes no port stops, instead staying well offshore and following the continental shelf edge between the end points. With so much time in the deep water, birders have found these repo cruises a wonderful way to view pelagic birds, most specifically the Pterodroma petrels that have proven so difficult to find from more traditional, 8-, 10-, or 12-hour pelagic trips. As this video will show, the cruise ship is no longer a secret!

Me being a clown, as per usual

Hold on, hold on. If I went north (LA > VAN) last spring, wouldn't it make sense to go south (VAN > LA) this fall/winter, right? Yes, it would, but this was a special repo cruise, one that was repositioning the ship to Vancouver for painting, maintenance, and other upgrades. This is important as this late-Nov/early-Dec trip is unlikely to go every year. So, if you're looking into doing this exact trip next year, be advised that it might not run. There will most certainly be some form of southbound repo cruise in late fall (Sept/Oct), but, given that earlier season, that trip won't likely replicate the successes of this past week. 

This most recent repo cruise left LA on Wednesday, November 29th at 4pm. With the short days, we did little birding as it was dark by the time we left the harbor. At sunrise on the next day (Thursday), we found ourselves ~40-50 mils off Big Sur, and, in the course of the day, we made our way north along the shelf edge to reach central Sonoma County by nightfall (around 5:30pm). In that stretch, we had good numbers of Northern Fulmars, low numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, scattered alcids, a few Red Phalaropes, single numbers of Black-footed Albatrosses, and at least 2 very distant Laysan Albatrosses. On the whole it was a very slow day characterized by strong north winds and heavy seas. That night we traversed the remainder of the California Coast.

The sun rose just after we crossed into Oregon on Friday morning, and we immediately had more birds of every sort, most notably Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses. It wasn't long until a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross materialized, quickly buzzing the port side of the boat before quickly disappearing. I got on it very late, enough for a decent ID view but not enough for photos. After that the albatross floodgates opened. For the next few hours, Black-footeds and Laysans were in near constant view on the horizon. Midday we passed an active trawler that had loads albatrosses around it, including another 2 or 3 Short-taileds (all juveniles). Those gave much nicer views than the first (photos below). 

We found passed this (and only this) fishing boat. 
It was probably half a mile away. 
So yeah, most of the birds were very distant.

All of the photos are terrible quality due to the distance of the birds from the boat. I have chosen to show the full frame and the cropped image so that you can see what you can expect with 560mm of focal length (400 + 1.4x). I expect those folks at the very front of the ship will have much better pics of this Short-tailed Albatross as it moved away from the boat by the time I got on it.

Short-tailed Albatross (juvenile) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note chocolate color and huge, pink bill

Laysan Albatross record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above

The albatrosses ensured that everyone on the ship was stoked, but we still hadn't yet seen a single petrel. Most everyone was hoping for Mottled Petrel, and it was with great excitement that the first of those was spotted and called-out mid-afternoon. I missed that individual as I was on the wrong side of the ship and was understandably despondent about it. Laying on my own scope, I quickly spotted another as redemption. At that point, petrels appeared everywhere, and we had Mottleds in near constant view until we crossed into Washington right as darkness fell. Many of them gave great views as they arced up and down just in front of the ship. As mentioned, there were also single numbers of Cook's Petrels mixed in. 

Mottled Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note stocky body, short wings,
black ulnar bars on underwing, gray belly.

Mottled Petrel (topside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Mostly gray with classic "M" 
pattern traced across wings.

Cook's Petrel (underside) record shot - full frame, uncropped

Cropped from above. Note cleaner underwing and more nimble, 
longer-winged form than Mottled.

OK, you get the idea; The birds were far away. But that's to be expected given the size of the ship and the fact that it doesn't slow down no matter what appears! Since the views are poor compared to a regular pelagic trip, the cruise ship won't at all replace those shorter outings. The cruise is really for those hardcore listers who want to tick tough species such as the Pterodroma petrels for their ABA lists. I had 32 Cook's, 18 Murphy's, and 2 Hawaiian in the spring and ~200 Mottled and 8 Cook's on this fall/winter leg. In comparison, I didn't see see a single petrel (besides fulmars) on the ~15 NorCal pelagics that I took this year. The cruise ship is the only way to go for these birds. There was actually a Red-legged Kittiwake called out on Friday, but only 1 or 2 people got onto it. I'm not sure if it made the official trip list or not. 

The list of marine mammals included Fur Seal, breaching Humpback Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin, Sperm Whale (I think), and a small pod (3-4) of Orcas not far from where we passed the fishing boat. I'm sure this mammal list is incomplete.

The cruise concluded when we pulled into Vancouver mid-morning on Saturday, December 2nd. So, we ended up with 2 full days of sea birding, the first boring and the second exciting. 

As I covered the layout of the ship, food, and other assorted cruise considerations in Post #65, I'll briefly touch on a couple of other considerations that people might find interesting/helpful.

Inside the boat. I avoided this except for boarding.....

Seasickness was - as far as I could tell - a non-issue on the trip. Some people wore ear patches but the ship really doesn't move that much. We had some long-period swell but nothing more. Interestingly, some people might find taking motion sickness pills near bedtime a good way to aid sleep. The ship is big but does pitch slowly if there is sufficient swell/wind.

Weather was quite chilly at times, particularly in the wind, but nothing that a decent parka wouldn't easily fend off. Interestingly, the weather on this fall trip was about equivalent to the last year's spring trip, a bit of a surprise given the time of year. The days were significantly shorter this time around, the light being usable from about 7am until 5pm (spring was more like 6am to 8pm). 

Sunset over the North Pacific

With upwards of 70 birders on board this time around, it did feel crowded at times, particularly when everyone was crammed onto the bow during the albatross and petrel madness on Friday. I have no idea how crowds will trend moving forward, but positioning is significantly more important on the cruise ship that it is on a traditional pelagic where it is easy for everyone to move to any point on the boat. If the wind permits, the bow is the place to be. If not, the sun angle dictates that the port/left side is better in the morning and the starboard/right side better in the afternoon - assuming you're going north; The opposite would be true going south. Wind on the Pacific Coast is almost always from the north or northwest.

Though it wasn't terribly rough on this run per se, the boat did move a bit slower than usual because of that long-period swell above referenced. This meant that we ported into Vancouver about 4 hours later than scheduled. I would highly suggest leaving a big buffer between the ship's scheduled arrival and your departing flight to allow for similarly unexpected/unplanned delays. Many people (myself included) actually stuck around Vancouver for the weekend, so that's a great option if you feel like doing some extra, terrestrial birding at cruise's conclusion. You've already made it that far, right? Winter birding around Boundary Bay is great. 

OK, that's it for now. If you like this sort of thing, you might want to 'follow' the blog so that you don't miss similar trip recaps moving forward. You can do that on the right hand side/column of the page as it appears in the WEB FORMAT on either your home computer or phone (sadly, you can't do it from the mobile device format on your phone). 

And since I made you put up with crappy photos for this whole entry, I'll leave you with a few decent shots from around Vancouver after the cruise. Enjoy!

***As always, click for higher resolution views***

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Northern Pintail - Anus acuta
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, laying facedown in duck crap.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/400 at f/8, ISO 1600

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Post #123 - Photographing wintering waterfowl and other birds from my kayak

Wintering waterfowl have arrived! It took a bit of time for them to materialize from their more northerly nesting grounds, but wigeons, pintails, scaup, scoters, mergansers and everything in between have finally settled into their winter digs around the San Francisco Bay Area. I am very excited about these arrivals as they give me the perfect chance to dust off the kayak for some winter waterfowl photography. I currently have a Sea Eagle 385FT, a two person inflatable. It is very easy to cart around, assemble, and inflate; It takes just 15 minutes from car trunk to launch. It is also very comfortable, spacious, and stable, important considerations given the fancy photo gear that I am using it to haul around. It does take a considerable amount of effort to move through the water compared to a hardshell kayak, but hey, that's the price of portability and convenience. 

The beauty of the kayak is that it gets me out onto the water with the various waterfowl that I want to photograph. Waterfowl can be very skittish, but they seem less so when approached from the water and in boat as low profile as a kayak. Interesting, it's the act of paddling that seems to cause the birds the most angst; Birds seem much more tolerant of a drifting boat than an actively paddled one. This makes for a great photographic challenge as I must paddle the boat into the optimal photographic position while being every-ready to drop the paddle and quickly pick up the camera when the desired opportunity finally presents. This is particularly true for take-off and flight shots where I might only have a second or two to ditch the paddle, grab the camera, get the lens on the bird, acquire focus, and crack off a few frames. It's really hard but totally worth it when it all works!


Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 500

As you can see from the close-up above, some individual birds will tolerate very close approach. Sometimes though, and particularly for flight shots, it's actually better not to get too close as it is important to have the space to capture the fully extended wings. There's nothing worse than getting a perfectly-focused, well-lit flight shot only to find out I've clipped even the slightest bit off the wing. I was stoked to get the full bird below!

Surf Scoter (male) - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Surf Scoters are both the most numerous and most approachable ducks in the Pillar Point Harbor where I have been doing most of my shooting. They are also relatively easy to expose, the white bits being comparatively small/unimportant to the much larger amounts of blacks. More challenging from both approachability and exposure standpoints are Buffleheads, the high-contrast speedsters of the waterfowl world. The trick is to get enough exposure to reveal their beautifully iridescent heads but not so much that all the whites are blown away.  

***Again, click images higher resolution views***

Bufflehead (male) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Bufflehead (female) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Bufflehead (male) - Bucephala albeola
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 500

My recent outings have focused on waterfowl, but I have run into all sorts of other birds long the way. The murre below was at one point right next to the kayak, so close that I could have reached out, put my hand under it, and lifted it into the boat!

Common Murre (winter plumage) - Uria aalge
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Common Loon (winter plumage) - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Common Loon (winter plumage) - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Lastly, I was also able to snap a nice shot of the the continuing immature Red-footed Booby that has been hanging around Half Moon Bay for the last month. He prefers sitting at the far end of a protective rockpile/jetty, and I was easily able to access that area with my kayak. This was ABA seen bird #724 for me (Tamaulipas Crow at the Rio Grande Birding Festival was #723). He's very regular and predictable, so much so that I've seen him on all 4 of my recent Half Moon Bay Outings. And yes, I also got him for the bike list! So that was pretty cool.

Red-footed Booby - record shot

So, that's it. I hope I've sold you on the kayak as a great way to photograph waterfowl and other water birds. I'll certainly be doing more of this through the winter, so please so stay tuned for more results in the near future. 

This next week I'll be taking a cruise ship pelagic from Los Angeles to Vancouver. My main target bird is Mottled Petrel, and I'll have an information-packed recap for you when I return next week. I'll also have 2 days birding and photographing in Vancouver, so hopefully that will yield some good blog fodder as well!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Post #122 - Birding Taiwan, part 2 of 2 - Birding and Bird Photography - Very long!

OK, for those that missed the first installment of my Taiwan experiences, please take a few minutes to check it out. It has all sort of information that I think you will find helpful if you are thinking about visiting Taiwan. With those logistics already covered, I'll jump right into the bird-centric follow-up to that first post.

The first thing I do want to do is point you towards two excellent local guides with whom I connected on my recent trip. The first is Kuan-Chieh "Chuck" Hung, my particular guide on my recent occasion. He is a Taiwan native who really knows his way around. He is very knowledgeable, very patient, and very friendly! I highly recommend him; His English is great, and he'll be able to give you a truly authentic view of his homeland. The second guide is Richard Foster, a Northern Ireland transplant with whom we crossed paths several times. He is also a really nice guy and seems to have a very good handle on the island's birds. You can't go wrong with either on these professionals. 

To make things really easy, I'll lay out my exact itinerary from my recent trip to Taiwan. As it was a FAM (promotional) trip, we covered a lot of ground in a very short time. I would not recommend that anyone try to duplicate this as more time in each spot is highly advised. Some sites we only saw for an hour at a time as the tourism folks had a lot they wanted to show us in our 8 days. Since we moved around so much, I'm just going to take you through our itinerary day by day. Individuals can then design their own itineraries using this as a template. I have included links to eBird checklists so that you can use that platform to see exactly where I went and what I saw.

Day 1 - Birding around Taipei. I arrived at 6am after a 13-hour flight from San Francisco. That's a fairly typical arrival for flights from the West Coast of the US. That sort of arrival means a whole day of birding is possible - if you have the energy (I did!). Tired but excited, we visited several birding sites around Taipei including the Botanical Gardens, Yangmingshan National Park (Qianshan Park, Menghuan Lake), and the coast of Jinshan District. At these sites we found the secretive Malayan Night-Heron, Taiwan Barbet (Endemic = E), Gray Treepie, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Taiwan Blue-Magpie (E), Taiwan Whistling-Thrush (E), Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge (E), Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler (E), Brambling, Black Drongo, and Light-vented Bulbul.

eBird checklists for the 5 stops that we made that first day are here:
Botanical Garden:
Yangmingshan NP - Qianshan Park:
Yangmingshan NP - Menghuan Lake:
Jinshan Park:
Jinshan Marsh:

The most important thing to take away from a day of Taipei birding is Taiwan Blue-Magpie, an iconic endemic that is easiest to find at the north (Taipei) end of the island. We saw several very well at Qianshan Park, but they were sadly directly overhead and not amenable to decent photos. Dealing with this species as fast as possible will mean you have greater flexibility going forward. They are highly localized and as such aren't likely to be encountered save for at a few select spots.

***Click images for higher resolution views***

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge - Bambusicola sonorivox
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

Taiwan Bamboo-Partridge - Bambusicola sonorivox
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

Days 2 and 3 - Dasyueshan National Park. After an overnight in Taipei, we headed for Dasyueshan National Park, perhaps the single best birding spot in the country. Dasyueshan is birded from the long (like 30 miles long) entrance road. It runs into the park and dead ends at its highest elevations. We made many stops along it as we slowly ascended from 700 feet towards the Dasyueshan Lodge at 7460 feet. Birding the road is fun as the species change as one ascends. We found Taiwan Hwamei (E), Rufous-capped Babbler, Crested Serpent-Eagle and Morrison's Fulvetta (E) around Kilometer (KM) 13. Higher, between KM 23 and 35, we found Taiwan Partridge (E), Yellow Tit (E), Black-throated Tit, Rufous-faced Warbler, Taiwan Yuhina (E), White-eared Sibia (E) and Steere's Liocichla (E). However the highlights were certainly the Swinhoe's Pheasants (E) that periodically appeared at roadside. For better or worse, they have become quite used to people as both birders and photographers have taken to feeding them at roadside. Bird feeding of any sort (including traditional backyard feeders) is technically illegal in Taiwan, but no one seems to enforce the rule and at least a few informal feeding areas have become established along the Dasyueshan Road. With results like this, I wasn't going to complain.

Swinhoe's Pheasant - Lophura swinhoii
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

The following morning we birded around the Dasyueshan Lodge where we found Coal Tit, Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush (E), Rusty Laughingthrush (E), White-tailed Robin, and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. The laughingthrushes were great finds as they move in tight groups during the winter months; One must get a bit lucky to cross paths with those groups as they forage. In many respects, birding in Taiwan it a bit like birding in the tropics as all the activity comes in bursts when a feeding flock is encountered; Between those flocks, it can be quiet. So, be patient!

Birding between markers 35 and 43 later that morning, we added Gray-capped Woodpecker, White-back Woodpecker, Gray-chinned Minivet, Taiwan Cupwing (E), Taiwan Barwing (E), and Vivid Nitalva to our growing list. Around the lodge that afternoon we found Mikado Pheasant, the rarer of the two endemic pheasants. By the end of the Day 3, we had found 17 of the 27 endemics, and we added Flamecrest for #18 as we headed out of Dasyueshan on the morning of Day 4.

Dasyueshan Road, KM 0-15, Day 2:
Dasyueshan Road, KM 23-35, Day 2:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 35-43, Day 3:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 3:
Dasyuenhan Road KM 43, Day 4:

Mikado Pheasant - Syrmaticus mikado
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

A few notes on Dasyueshan. The lodge at the top of the road is the the only option. It is perfectly positioned, has nice single rooms, and a single restaurant. I would advise that three nights be spent at Dasyueshan to ensure enough time for all the requisite/desired endemics. We got really lucky and found them in just two. The restaurant is notably all Chinese food all the time. There is no menu. Everything is served family style. They food is good but, I would highly advise snacks and/or some supplementary food to add a bit of familiar and comforting variety to things. There is no store in the park, so whatever one brings will need be purchased prior to starting the long ascent towards the lodge.

Day 4 - Travel. We briefly birded Dasyueshan (checklist above) before beginning the long drive to to Hehuanshan National Forest and Song Syue Lodge. We did make one midday birding stop at Guguan to add Chestnut-bellied Tit (E) and Brown Dipper.

Guguan Hot Spring Park, Day 4:

Chestnut-bellied Tit
Cano 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Day 5 - Alpine birding around Song Syue Lodge. Birding right at the tree line around the lodge, we found Eurasian Wren, Flamecrest (E), Taiwan Rosefinch (E), Alpine Accentor, Collared Bush-Robin (E), and White-whiskered Laughingthrush (E). We heard the incredibly secretive Taiwan race of White-browed Shortwing but weren't able to get any looks at the painfully shy bird. Otherwise, the birding was wide open and really, really enjoyable. With short trees and few places for birds to hide at 10,000 feet of elevation, photographic opportunities abounded. Beyond that, the scenery was spectacular. Take out the pleasant birding and the landscapes alone would have been worth the long drive. The basic strategy at that elevation is to move between the various roadside parking lots along the road, looking for birds at each pullout. We made several such stops and added Taiwain Fulvetta (E), an endemic race of Gray-headed Bulfinch, Eurasian Nutcracker, and a single Red Crossbill to our trip list. That last find was amazing as my photos of it represent only the second documented record for Taiwan! Later, and a bit farther downslope, we found a single (Taiwan) Island Thrush, a striking, white-headed variant that is likely to be split into its own species at some point.

Song Syue Lodge, Day 5:
Roadside Pullout, Day 5:
Roadside Pullout, Day 5:
'Blue Trail', Day 5:

White-whiskered Laughingthrush - Garrulax morrisonianus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

A few notes on Hehuanshan. It seems as though this area is also referred to as Taroko National Park, and it is indeed possible to reach the apparently spectacular Taroko Gorge by driving over and down the mountains to the east. We did not do that as time did not permit; We had only a morning of birding which was way too little, especially considering the photographic opportunities. The Song Syue Lodge is incredible but can only be booked 30 days in advance. As such, it doesn't work for international tours organized well in advance. There are a number of very modern hotels down slope at Qianjing Farm. It takes about an hour to reach the summit area from that town. I would highly suggest staying two nights in Qianjing Farm and using the entire day in-between to bird the those highest elevations. The only reason we left after one morning was because we had to drive all the way to Budai where we were honorary attendees of the 2017 Taiwan Birdathon. So, don't do what we did. Take your time!

Collared Bush-Robin - Tarsiger johnstoniae
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Day 6 - The Coast around Budai. On this day we had only three open hours at the beginning of the day as we had non-birding commitments and driving during the rest of it. However, those three hours were very productive as we hit the coast for our first taste of water birding. Birding Budai Wetland Park, we found loads of waterfowl, Yellow Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Little Ringed-Plover, Long-toed Stint, Common Greenshank, Whiskered Tern, and Plain Prinia. We also had a bunch of herons, swallows, and wagtails. A second stop not far away yielded Chinese Egret, Great Knot, Eurasian Curlew, Red-necked Stint, and Common Redshank. The rest of the day was dedicated to the birdathon ceremonies, meeting with tourism ministry officials, and travel back to the mid-elevations (~3000 feet) at the Firefly Lodge (see below). Birding around the lodge that night, we found Northern Boobook and Mountain Scops Owl.

Budai Wetland IBA, Day 6:
Bazhang River Estuary, Day 6:

Day 7 - Mid-elevations around Firefly Lodge. Here again we had only a few morning hours of birding as we had more administrative/tourism commitments before starting the very long drive to the southern end of Taiwan at Kenting. Firefly is a great place that caters to birders. They even have a series of bird blinds for photography, but (sadly) we didn't have time to visit those. We did find our two Firefly targets, Black-naped Monarch and Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler (E) along the road that leads to the lodge. We also added Striated Heron and Plumbeous Redstart before starting the long drive back to the coast. This lodge would provide convenient access to the higher elevations of Alishan and the endemics that prefer those altitudes.

Firefly Lodge, Morning Day 7:

That evening, after a bunch of commitments on the coast and before the long drive to Kenting, we squeezed in a bit more shorebirding. In the Beiman IBA in Tainan City we found 16 species of waders, Black-tailed Godwit, Asian Dowitcher, Curlew Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ruff, and Temminck's Stint all being new for the trip.

Beiman IBA, Afternoon Day 7:

Day 8 - Morning in Kenting. Reaching this far south on such a quick trip was in many ways counter-productive, but the tourism folks really wanted us to see the area. It also gave us a few morning hours to add our final endemic, Styan's Bulbul, to our birdlist. We also found the Taiwan race of Whistling Green-Pigeon, another bank bird that is sure to be split in the future. Those birds, as were Blue Rock-Thrush and Ashy Minivet, were found on the grounds of our hotel, Gloria Manor. That accommodation was super fancy, probably far beyond what a birding tour requires. The food was fully western, so that might be a selling point for some. At $200-400/night, it is not cheap. We left mid-morning to catch the high-speed train back to the Taipei airport from which we all departed that evening.

As this was a promotional trip designed to highlight the Taiwan birding product, we moved WAY too fast and did WAY too much driving. But that's how these trips works as the tourism folks want to show us as much as possible in a short time. If we slowed down and did more birding, I am sure we would have found many more species. It was wonderful as it was, and I really want to return when I will have the time to bird at a slower place. When all was said and done, we found 26 of the 27 endemics, a handful of sure future splits, and ~160 total species.

So, hopefully that gives you a good idea of what Taiwan has to offer. I am sure there are many areas that we missed, particularly the Alishan Highlands well above the Firefly Lodge, but there just wasn't time to visit all the best spots in our quick 8 days. Lanyu Island off the southern coast is supposed to be great spring birding, Asian Paradise Flycatcher being the prime target during the warmer months.

Oh yeah, and before I forget! I was pleasantly surprised with the other sorts of wildlife that I observed in Taiwan. Butterflies abounded and apparently there are quite a few snakes though we didn't see any (bummer as I love snakes). The most obvious mammal was the Taiwan Macaque (a monkey). Most were high in trees but I did catch this guy moving across a branch in bright sunlight! Had I had the my zoom I would have been able to get his whole body; As it was I captured a quick headshot and under-exposed the background to get this effect.

Taiwan Macaque
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Then there's this amazing beast, the Red-and-White-Giant Flying Squirrel. I had no idea such a thing even existed. It is closer in size to cat than a squirrel, and it is as large as a doormat when it flies! We found this guy on a night drive in Dasyueshan.

Red-and-White-Giant Flying Squirrel
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 6400, Flash from EX580.

Lastly, I'll say that photography in Taiwan presents a few challenges, mainly due to a general lack of light from constant cloud cover and forest canopy in the areas I visited. In those respects, it's very similar to shooting in the tropics. Slow shutters and high ISO are the norm, so think about that as you prepare. The once exception was up high at Hehuanshan where we had a much welcomed crystal clear morning above the forest. The birds everywhere in Taiwan are generally approachable, behaving more like those in North American than those in Europe.

OK, enough you get the idea. Go to Taiwan! It's cool! My next big international trip is 15 days in Ecuador in December, so please stay tuned for that as well!