Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Post #107 - My first time visiting and birding Minnesota!

I'm so sorry to have two full weeks between posts. Between logistics surrounding our move from LA to SF and a 10-day road trip, writing has fallen temporary casualty to other responsibilities. That will all change with this post as I had on that road trip some wonderful birding experiences that will provide great fodder for this blog. Without going into too much detail, Sonia and I spent 4 days in Minnesota before driving from there back to California. Along that arc we did a fair amount of birding (notably in MN, SD, and UT), and I'll use a series of 3 posts to share my experiences from this recent journey.

Our route from Minnesota to California

Prior to this trip, I had visited 43 of the 50 states, the outliers being Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana. That I didn't visit any part of the Midwest on my 2014 Biking for Birds adventure was probably my biggest regret of the entire endeavor, but a visit to that geography simply didn't make sense given the distribution of species and the physical limits of my body. So, when Sonia and I were invited to a wedding in Alexandria, MN, I was stoked for my inaugural visit to the Gopher State!

My 2014 Biking for Birds Route. I completely missed the midwest.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about birding during the nesting season, and, while birding around my Bay Area home is admittedly a bit slow during those summer months, nothing could be further from the truth in Minnesota. Warblers, vireos, and orioles were everywhere in great abundance. Particularly striking was the presence and diversity of flycatchers. Least Flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Wood-Pewees were everywhere. I also, and finally(!), saw my lifer Alder Flycatcher for ABA-seen #717. I know, it's totally crazy that it took me so long to add such a relatively common bird to my life list. Alder Flycatcher was just a species that I figured I'd run into at some point but never did, even on my bicycle Big Year (they migrate late and don't call on the Texas Coast for ID anyway). Once photography came to rival birding for my fullest attentions, it is understandable that I instead focused on other, more photogenic species. Anyway, Alder Flycatcher is finally a done deal, a loudly calling individual begging for my attention at Fort Snelling State Park just outside Minneapolis.

A typical Minnesota summer scene

Though I only spent a few days in Minnesota, I can say that the birding seems to get better as as one moves north. This isn't shocking as population also thins in that same direction. I only wish that I had more time to visit farther reaches than I did. I didn't, for instance, make it to true boreal forest on this trip. Interestingly, it seems as though summer and winter are the best birding times to visit Minnesota. This contrasts with many other areas where it is the spring and falls migrations that make for the most exciting birding. So, when things near your home are slower between those migrations, head to Minnesota for non-stop birding action. I'd love to make it to the Sax-Zim bog in the northern part of the state in winter to photograph owls at some point, but that will have to wait for another trip.  For those thinking of visiting in Spring or summer to avoid those frigid winter temperatures, may I suggest the Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes each May. It looks like a really cool event. David Sibley was this year's keynote speaker, so the event clearly attracts some notable birding names.

More Minnesota scenery

As a a last note, I want to mention a particularly wonderful morning that I spent in Minnesota. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I put a post up on the Minnesota Birders Facebook page asking if there was anyone who owned a boat who might be willing to take me out on the water to photograph loons, grebes, and terns. Detroit Lakes birder Beau Shroyer saw my request and contacted me saying he'd be happy to take Sonia and I out for a morning.

Captain Beau at the helm!

We met Beau east of Detroit Lakes at 5:45am on a Saturday morning. In his small boat he toured us around Round Lake, a body where he and his family spend at least some time each summer. Though he is now a real estate agent, Beau knows a ton about the ecology and natural history of Minnesota. His personality was warm and his commentary informative, and our time with him highlighted exactly the sort of personal connections that are so often made through the common interest of birding. I managed a few nice shots that morning, but my time with Beau will certainly be the most memorable part of my entire Minnesota experience.

Red-necked grebe - Podiceps grisegena
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1250

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Common Loon - Gavia immer
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

So that's what I have for you after a too quick trip to Minnesota. In the next installment I'll visit South Dakota, another new state for me! Please stay tuned for that post sometime next week!

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Post #106 - Nesting season is here: Collecting nesting data and photographing nesting birds!

Though Coastal California has some of the best birding in the country, summer around here is notoriously slow. Migrant species have returned to more northerly latitudes, species diversity is at its lowest point in the year, the possibility of rarities is painfully low, and good weather and associated summer crowds mean that natural areas are unusually crowded for the next few months. On the surface, it might look like birding might take a backseat to other activities for a few months. However, there are a couple of unique and really wonderful birding and photography opportunities that arise during nesting season irrespective wherever you live.

Northern Fulmars - Fulmaris glacialis
Whitless Bay, Newfoundland, Canada
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/7.1, ISO 400, handheld

The first of these is the chance to view locally nesting species and, with the help of eBird, collect valuable data on those local breeders. While all habitat is important, it would be difficult to argue against breeding habitat as the most valuable to most species. I appreciate the value of Christmas Counts, but I have always though it would be really cool if a similar community-based effort was put into censusing nesting species. I suspect that if the holiday season fell in June we'd be doing exactly that, but as it is people have more time off in December. What this means is that the data that individuals generate with respect to locally nesting species is particularly valuable. So, while species diversity in areas such as Coastal California might be lower in summer, the data contained in eBird checklists from those months still has great value!

Pacific-slope Flycatcher - Empidonax difficilus
Huntington Beach, California
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/11, ISO 800, bit of flash.

The second fun thing about the summer nesting season is finding actual nests. Once an active nest is located, its a blast to watch the parents go about their daily business as they raise their young. There is constant activity as the adults come and go, and depending on what species is being observed (particularly shorebirds) it quite possible to follow the chicks from hatching through fledging. There is a reason why there are so many of those 'nest-cam' things, right? Who doesn't want to see stuff like this?

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D original
1/160 at f/11, ISO 320, handheld

One last thing about nesting season is that photographing nesting birds is really fun and productive. Nesting birds behave in a very predictable manner, particularly once the chicks hatch, so its possible to just set up shop ad wait for the particular behavior or shot that you want. The bigger the chicks get, the more the parents have to come and go to keep them fed. Setting up shop along the most popular supply routes or flight paths is a great way to get flight shots. That's exactly how I got this shot this weekend. This Cliff Swallow was nesting under a dock here on SF Bay. I watched the colony for an hour and figured out the best strategy. Once I got familiar with what was going on, getting this shot wasn't as difficult as it might seem. Nest photography gives a shooter a great opportunity to plan out and execute shots!

Cliff Swallow - Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Palo Alto, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 1000, handheld

All that being said, it's really important to respect the space of all birds, but particularly nesting birds. There are all sorts of procedural and ethical considerations, and I would point you to this article from Audubon rather than rehashing points that have already been stated nicely. The biggest thing is that nesting birds are tolerant of humans if humans take the time to establish trust with the birds. Walking straight up to a nest and scaring off the parents is not how to do this. Find a nest, observe it for an hour, and learn the birds' behavior. Let the birds additionally get used to your presence over the course of several hours or even several days. If you don't want to take the time to approach nests respectfully, then please consider not doing it at all. If the birds fly off and don't immediately return or they look agitated, back off! It's really that simple. Think of how you'd want your kids treated and return the favor to the birds.

I'm off to Minnesota for the first time on Friday! Will be fun to bird a new state (#44!). I'll also be spending a few days in South Dakota (#45!), so I'd love to hear from people about birding in those areas! After this trip I'll just be missing Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Post #105 - The return of the bicycle and an intro to bike-birding!

Woo hoo! After two and half year hiatus from bike-birding, I today hit the trail for the first time since the conclusion of my 2014 Biking for Birds Big Year project! A number of different factors combined to keep me on the sidelines during that time, the most notable of which was the urban sprawl of Los Angeles where my wife and I lived for the past 2 years. Now that we've moved to Northern California and are comfortably settled right near the San Francisco Bayshore, I plan on doing a lot more bike-birding in the near future. Things will be a bit slow through the summer but will really heat up during fall migration. Winter will be dynamite as hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds spend the cooler months in SF Bay and nearby Pacific Coast. I'm really looking forward to it!

My new backyard. Those trees dead center
are Coyote Point Park. There's a bike path 
basically as far as you can see (in either direction).

So, what the heck is this bike-birding thing all about anyway? Well, the general idea is to minimize one's petroleum consumption and more general environmental impact by doing one's birding using the bicycle as the primary mode of transportation. Bike-birding is often referred to as "green birding" because it doesn't generate any carbon emissions beyond the baseline metabolism of the participant. Green birding as a term also includes walking, kayaking, and other similarly self-powered endeavors such as running and canoeing, but the bicycle is generally the featured mode of transportation as it allows a lot of ground to be covered. 

Yesterday's route. I really have to ease back into 
this as I am just getting over a severely strained 
left calf muscle. I will use the park for start/end
 since I don't want a pin at my home.

Terminology and minimal environmental impact aside, bike-birding is an incredibly fun and healthy way to interact with birds and the environments they inhabit. Bicycles allow a window to the natural world that cars simply cannot match as it's possible to see, hear, and smell things from the bicycle that would be completely missed from a car. Granted it's possible to cover much more ground in a car than on a bike, but the riding experience - at least on nice days - more than makes up for the distance shortfall. Plus, its super healthy. Now you can go ahead and have that extra scoop of double fudge peanut butter moose tracks ice cream!

The highest pint to which I biked during
my 2014 bike-birding odyssey. That ride
was worth about a gallon of ice cream.

Here I can add a personal note and say from personal experience that when a person bike-birds, it really feels as though the ticked species have been earned. That's not to say species collected with motorized transport don't matter or count, but it feels really different on the bike. I'll still be doing much birding and photography with motorized transportation (more on this at the end), but I am going to do what everyday, local birding I can with my bike. I also fully understand that many people are simply not in the physical condition to make bike-birding a regular thing. Biking is also a much larger assumed physical risk than is driving, so someone with 3 small kids might opt for the car not only for convenience but also for the future well-being his family. So, there's no judgement from me on how anyone birds. I do, however, think think that those who bike-bird should be offered a friendly pat on the back for the efforts they are making.

One from my short ride yesterday. Nice and light
compared to what I carried on my Big Year!

I should probably here mention a few of the broadest rules/conventions of the bike-biding game, at least as they pertain to anything official. I don't yet think the ABA or other organization has set in stone any set of bike-birding rules/guidelines, so take what I write here just as general suggestions.

1) Generally, to be considered officially 'green', a day of bike-birding should start and end at the same place, usually a person's residence. That means that I will on almost every occasion be doing "out-and-back" type trips from my San Mateo apartment. If there's a sweet bird in Half Moon Bay, I've got to bike the 20 miles there AND the same miles back. None of this one way on the bike, one way in a car stuff!

2) The exceptions to the above are Big Days and Big Years where participants are free to pick the starting and ending points to their transects. As long as the bike-birder doesn't use motorized transport between those points, then everything is cool. This exception exists so that birders in less birdy areas aren't put at an immediate disadvantage. For example, the ABA bike Big Day record will almost always come from either Texas in spring or California in spring; A birder in Maine who wants to take a crack at that record should be free to fly to Texas or California for his/her effort. Likewise, if bike Big Years had to start and end in the same spot, anyone at northern latitudes would be royally screwed since they'd need to fight snow and ice twice, once at in Jan/Feb and again in Nov/Dec. Those in the sun belt live much closer to more prime birding spots and shouldn't automatically be afforded that advantage compared to their northern counterparts.

3) Ferries and other form of motorized assistance are not permitted at any point, Big Days and Big Years included. Technically, a rider can have a vehicle offer assistance as long as he still does the riding with all his gear. For example, if someone wants to cross particularly dangerous bridge on a bike Big Day, having a motorized escort (with flashing lights and such) over the bridge so as to stay safe is totally cool.

My 2014 Route, ~17,830 miles

I'm sure I've missed a bunch of stuff but I just wanted to mention these most major guidelines. All of this is admittedly a bit silly as bike-birding accounts for such a small fraction of the total amount of birding done in the world. Even within bike-birders, there's only a select few of us who care about these particulars. The most important thing is that people give bike-birding a try. It need not be serious or competitive to be enjoyed!

I do also want to add a note about how my photographic interest will conflict with my bike-birding interest. To state it simply, the two are not even remotely compatible, even less so than are petroleum-based birding and proper bird photography. I shoot the 2-3 hours after sunrise, and the 2-3 hours before sunset - and that's it. The light is just too harsh/steep to make good photos during the rest of the day - at least at my latitude. I am not looking to bike several hours in the dark with gear that costs more than a car to reach a shooting location by sunrise. As I am trying to build a bit of a business around my photography, I need results from it, and those just aren't going to come from a bicycle. The pattern that is therefore likely to emerge in the next few months is that I will bike-bird on cloudy days and drive to shoot on sunny days. So, that will explain why you see my using both a car and a bicycle moving forward!

For any bike-birders reading this, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. No specific information sought, just whatever is on your mind. Comments have been down recently so I'd really love to hear from anyone!

Ok, that's it for now. I will be providing all sorts of chronicles of my bike-birding adventures as they unfold, so please stayed tuned. Don't worry though, those bike-birding adventures won't completely take over the blog as I'll still be bringing you the more general sort of birding content that I've provided in the past, photographs included. Here's one from before my move since I shorted you on birds shots today!

 Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Orange County, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/2500 ay f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld lying in water

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!

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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!