Thursday, March 30, 2017

Post #98 - Birding Beautiful Belize (long!)

So, my Spain adventure ended on February 28, and I flew back to the states that day. I got home at midnight, and the following morning drove to SF where Sonia and I spent 5 days apartment hunting (we found a great place in San Mateo). I returned to LA for 2 days, then headed south to Belize and Guatemala for another 10-day birding/ecotourism press trip. The visit was a whirlwind tour designed to give us a flavor of what the two countries had to offer. I was incredibly impressed with both places, and the next 5 posts will reveal all that I experienced on my inaugural visit to both places. These posts are detailed enough that a person could fairly easily put together an really nice itinerary from the information I provide. OK, let's get going!

The opening, Belize portion of the trip was just 3 full days in length (an afternoon, 2 full days, and a morning), and I'll condense my account of them into this single, rather long post. I'll take you through each of my days so that you can get a good idea of what a birder might accomplish in Belize in just a few days. I didn't have much of an idea what to expect before my departure, but I can now say unequivocally that Belize should be right at the top of any traveling birder's wish list. My visit was very brief, so this account is by no means all-encompassing. It should, however, give you a nice introduction to what to expect on your (hopefully) upcoming visit! 



From the Central American map above, it's clear that Belize is very small. At 8,867 square miles, it's only ~10% larger than El Salvador, Central America's smallest country. Interestingly, we hear a lot about the bird species density of Costa Rica; With 910 species packed into 19,730 square miles, Costa Rica's avian density is certainly impressive. However, with ~590 bird species in its 8,867 square miles, Belize's bird species density is actually higher! The metric is a bit misleading as it favors smaller geographies, but it's nonetheless easy to see that Belize packs tremendous birdlife into a small package. 



When speaking about birding in Central America, Costa Rica is clearly the established reference point. I have visited Costa Rica once before, and the thing that immediately struck me about Belize is how comparatively underdeveloped (in a good way) it is. Belize has just 374,000 people in the entire country, making it - by an order of magnitude - the least populated country in Central America (Panama is next with 4 million, then Costa Rica with 5 million). Correcting for area, Belize has a population density 1/6 of that of Costa Rica. This means - first - that there is a lot of undisturbed habitat in Belize, and, second, that the country feels a bit more rustic, a bit less polished than Costa Rica. Stated another way, Belize is that great new restaurant that has yet to be fully discovered. It's still possible to get a table and a great meal at a reasonable price. The hype has far from out run the product, and those that visit Belize sooner (rather than later!) will be the trend setters versus the trend followers. 

Day 1 was a wash from a birding standpoint as it consisted of an afternoon arrival and evening welcome reception for our group. I did meet many fine folks from the Belize Audubon Society, an entity that both promotes conservation and manages reserves within the country. After dinner we headed an hour north from Belize City to reach the Bird's Eye Lodge at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. It was pitch black when we arrived, but a night outing yielded underwear-soiling views of Yucatán Nightjar, a reclusive species generally restricted to that geography.

Yucatan Nightjar - Antrostomus badius
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/300 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, handheld
Flash with 580EX II and Better Beamer
More like this on my Instagram account!
You are going to want to click on the
images for higher resolution views!

Same settings as above

We spent the morning of Day 2 birding Crooked Tree, and it was FANTASTIC!!! My eBird checklist from that morning has 106 species on it, including Jabiru, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Russet-naped Wood-rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Yucatán Woodpecker, Yellow-headed Parrot, Laughing Falcon, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Yucatán Flycatcher, Swainson's Warbler, Black-cowled Oriole, and Yellow-billed Cacique. The highlight of the morning was certainly the boat ride through the sanctuary. There were hundreds of waders and dozens of kingfishers. At one point, I had 5 Snail Kites in my binocular field! The bird of the morning was an Agami Heron as it picked it characteristic way through tangled roots overhanging the water's edge. I was so mesmerized by the bird's beauty that I forgot to get a photo (would had a lot of roots in the way, anyway!)


Bird's Eye View Lodge, from lakeshore

American Pygmy Kingfisher

Egrets Egrets Egrets!

Jabiru

Russet-naped wood rail - Aramides albiventris
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld from boat

Crooked Tree Boat Trip

In my opinion, it would be completely possible to spend 3 full days at Crooked Tree, particularly if photography is a priority. The lake runs north-south and as such the western and eastern shores should be perfectly lit in the morning and afternoon, respectively. A person could do some real photographic damage with a kayak at Crooked Tree! 

After our amazing morning at Crooked Tree, we headed south along the Hummingbird Highway towards Blue Hole National Park. An afternoon arrival left us a bit of time for birding at the park. Double-Toothed Kite, Passerini's Tanager, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Barred Antshrike highlighted an eBird checklist that can be found here. We spent night 2 at the very nice Jaguar Creek. We had planned to return to Blue Hole on the morning of Day 3, but heavy rains washed out that plan. We instead detoured to the coast and Gra Gra Lagoon where we padded our trip list with a variety of shorebirds (eBird checklist here). Mangrove Cuckoo was a very welcome surprise at that stop! 

Jaguar Creek

Mangrove Cuckoo, characteristically 
buried in the coastal bushes

After our visit to the coast, we headed back inland - where the rains had since stopped - to reach Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. That night (night 3) we stayed in a very primitive research station that at present is not suitable for 95% of visitors. There was electricity in the evening only, and no hot water at any point. Needless to say there was no wifi. I actually loved it, but I think most folks would be best staying somewhere else and commuting into the park to bird. We birded Cockscomb that evening (Day 3) and the following morning (Day 4). Highlights included Great Tinamou, Crested Guan, White Hawk, Uniform Crake, Black-headed Trogon, Gartered Trogon, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-faced Antthrush, Northern Bentbill, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Crimson-collared Tanager, Yellow-tailed Oriole, and Chestnut-headed Oropendella. Clearly, the birding was fantastic, overwhelming even at times. The checklist from the evening outing can be found here, and the checklist from the morning outing is here.

White-collared Manakin

Cockscomb Basin basic lodging

Cockscomb birding

Cockscomb River habitat

After our morning at Cockscomb we headed back North and turned east to arrive at the Guatemala border after lunch. The blog will continue with Guatemala's Petén Region and its Mayan archeological sites next time, but I do want to leave you with a few additional impressions of and notes on Belize. The first of these is the generally huge potential for birding and ecotourism in the country. With such a small population and a big conservation presence, Belize's birding product is likely to be intact well into the future. Local guides were friendly and very knowledgeable, particularly those from Paradise Expeditions. They knew the birding areas and they really spent the necessary time to get us onto birds. It is worth noting that most people in Belize - and everyone in the tourism arena in the country - speaks English, the guides included. So, English in unlikely to be a barrier to any visit.


Ivory-billed Woodcreeper - Xiphorhynchus flavigaster
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, handheld

Lodging options in Belize are admittedly not as extensive as other places, but that contributes - for the better as far as I am concerned - to the generally rustic feeling of the place. If you're OK keeping the focus on birding, this won't at all be an issue. If you're looking for lodges with attached spas and such, most won't fit that bill. We didn't visit the Chan Chich Lodge, but I know from reputation that it is supposed to be really nice. 

As my LA life has made me constantly aware of traffic, it is worth mentioning that there was little traffic anywhere. Belize City, into which you'll fly, has only 50,000 people, so escaping its clutches is much, much less painful than say, San Jose. The Hummingbird Highway was well-maintained and generally smooth sailing. Side roads are unpaved and can be beat up, but that's industry standard for Latin America. Driving one's self around Belize would be pretty straightforward.


Wish the sun was behind me instead of
in front of me, but you get the idea!

So there it is, a quick overview of Belize as done in 3 full days! It would be very possible to spend 2 nights in each of the areas we visited to make a trip of about a week. Alternatively, a couple days in Belize could be coupled with a few days in Guatemala's Petén to see the Mayan sites. This is exactly what I did, and it will be from there that we pick up next time! Cheers!

Lastly, If you like this content, PLEASE consider signing up to 'follow' this blog. All it takes is your email address, and you'll get updates whenever new posts are released (about once/week, that's it). This will help me understand my readership and display its collective weight. You can sign up to follow at the right hand side of the blog, just below the 'Archives' section. Thanks to those who have done this already, and I look forward to more of you joining us in the future!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Post #97 - Birding in Extremadura, Spain - Part 2 (of 2) - Birds, birding locations, and bird photography

This is part 2 (of 2) of my recent trip to the Extremadura region of Spain. In the first post (post #96, linked here), I highlighted the history and geography of the region. In this installment I'll focus more specifically on the birdlife. I'll spotlight the specific places that I visited and the birds that I saw at each location. Where appropriate, I have linked my eBird checklists to provide a complete view of observed species. So with that, let's get started.

There is simply no doubt that the crown jewel of Extremadura is Monfragüe National Park. Those from the Eastern United States might gleam some geologic similarity to the rolling, parallel ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. This is because the same plate tectonics that raised the Appalachians formed the Monfragüe ridges. Recall from elementary school the all of earth's landmasses were once aggregated in a supercontinent called Pangea. At that time, the eastern United States were closely juxtaposed to both North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, regions with which they still share geological similarity despite eons of continental drift between then and now. Wait, what the hell happened to birds? They're coming, I promise! 

The view from the top of Monfragüe National Park

An area of the park known as Monfragüe Landscape.
Vultures nest on the shown cliffs in large numbers.

Monfragüe's rocky ridges hold raptors at all seasons but particularly in summer; Hoards of Eurasian Griffons and lesser numbers of Cinereous Vultures and Egyptian Vultures nest in the area. It is worth noting that Old World Vultures are evolutionarily distinct from New World Vultures (Cathartidae). Scavenging evolved independently in the two groups; New World Vulture seek carrion by smell while Old World Vultures do so by sight. From the castle at the top of the national park, it is possible to get eye levels vies of these huge birds as they fly up and down the ridges. A camera is a must at this spot, and my only regret from my trip was that I only had a few hours at Monfragüe. Beyond vultures, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Bonelli's Eagle are resident, and a host of other raptors are reliably found as well. The park's woodlands host a nice variety of tits and finches, and Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, and Black Stork are usually found in rocky areas. A checklist of a day's birding at Monfragüe can be found here.

Cinereous Vulture at Monfragüe NP
Wingspans range from 8 to 10 feet, weight upwards of 25 lbs!

Eurasian Griffon - Gyps fulvus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/4, ISO 640
(the background is the water far below)
***click photo for higher resolution view***
This was my best photo of the whole trip

Not far from Monfragüe is the tiny hamlet of Cabañas del Castillo, a town built right into the cliffs that must be seen to be believed. It felt as though I could reach out and grab the Crag Martins as they whizzed past me. My checklist from my visit to Cabañas del Castillo and the surrounding area is here and includes, among others, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Gray Wagtail, Long-tailed Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, and Eurasian Blackcap.


 The view from above Cabañas del Castillo

Chaffinch

Switching it up from landbirding, the nearby Arrocampo Reservoir is home to all sorts of water birds. The artificial body is actually a heat sink to cool the nuclear reactor at the lake's downstream end. Arrocampo is rather expansive, but it is possible to scan most of it from its perimeter. This is a great spot to find Little Bittern, Western Swamphen, and other waders and shorebirds. Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Hoopoe, and Southern Gray Shrike were observed in the adjacent farm fields, and White Wagtails, Common Chiffchaffs, and a lone Bluethroat foraged at water's edge. One could easily spend an entire morning or afternoon at Arrocampo and still turn up new species. The birdlist from my visit can be found here. Alcollarín Reservoir was another particularly productive spot for water birds. My visit at that spot was highlighted by Graylag Goose, Common Pochard, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, and Cetti's Warbler. My complete checklist for my Alcollarín visit can be found here.



Eurasian Blackbird and Eurasian Hoopoe

Los Barruecos was my single favorite birding spot. The expansive boulder field is home to a large nesting colony of White Storks, most of which nest directly on top of the rocks. The birds are quite tolerant of humans, and there are a set of easy walking trails that wind through the colony. It is a really unique site, one that I will certainly revisit on my next trip!


Los Barruecos Bouldefield

Another view of Los Barruecos boulderfield

White Stork, just chilling

Storkscape

Beyond the storks, Sardinian Warblers, Crested Larks, Eurasian Stonechats, Black Redstarts, Zitting Cisticolas, and Spanish Sparrows were in great abundance at Los Barruecos. A particular highlight were the 2 Red-rumped Swallows that winged past me as I navigated the boulder field. A single Little Owl appeared on a roadside rock wall and made a strong case for bird of the day. Nearby ponds yielded Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Eurasian Marsh Harrier. Checklists from Los Barruecos and surrounds can he found here and here, respectively.


Non-birding activities in the area include the Vostell Museum, an equally strange and interesting tribute to Wolf Vostell, a pioneer in "Happening" and "Fluxus" art (neither of which I get, but who's to judge, right?). This is one of his sculptures outside the museum, a plane crashing into cars filled with television monitors. It's supposed to be some form of commentary on technology and modern life though I didn't glean all that what with the nesting storks on it!


Vostell Sculpture (with stork nests) 
at museum Los Barruecos 

If larks, bustards, and sandgrouse are what you seek, the plains around Cáceres are where you want to be. I made several transects of that habitat, turning up Calandra Lark, Great Bustard, Little Bustard, and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are apparently fairly reliable though we managed to miss those over several afternoons. The bustards in particular were a real treat. Interestingly, Great Bustard is the world's heaviest flying bird, so that adds a bit of trivia to these otherwise incredible birds. Checklists from the plains areas can be found here and here.


Great Bustards

Northern Lapwing at roadside

I also spent a bit of time birding in and around the various towns tha I visited. Mérida and Plasencia, in particular, were productive birding. For instance, the only Eurasian Penduline-Tit that I saw on the whole trip was on the Roman Bridge in Mérida. My Mérida checklist is here and my Plasencia checklist is found here. Birds like Black-headed Gull, Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Jackdaw European Goldfinch, Eurasian Kingfisher and European Serin were as easy to see in towns as anywhere else, so do keep your eyes open for birds when in urban areas. 

Other notable birds encountered over the course of the trip included Red-legged Partridge, Eurasian Thick-knee, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Alpine Swift, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Red-billed Chough, Corn Bunting, Black Wheatear, and Spotless Starling.

Corn Bunting on a very misty morning
Looks like a giant Vesper Sparrow, huh?

I ultimately ended up with 119 species for 8 days of birding. As I stated in the first Extremadura post, that number is significantly lower than the 175 species one could expect to collect during an April or May visit. If I were visiting from the US, I would aim for later in the spring when more of the Southern European specialties birds (European Bee-eater, Eurasian Roller, etc) have returned from their wintering grounds.


Iberian Magpie (in trademark oak woodlands)

Lastly, it is worth noting that bird photography in Spain is incredibly difficult. This is likely due to the hunting tradition around the Mediterranean, a frustrating history that makes birds in the region super wary of humans and, as a result, painfully unapproachable. I generally found that it wasn't worth carrying my camera in the field, save for record shots. If faced with space constraints when packing and you've got to chose between the camera and the scope, take the scope, hands down. 

Though collecting quality photographs while birding (i.e. in the field) isn't likely to be successful, there is a set of professional level blinds, or "hides", around Extremadura to assist photographers towards this goal. These managed entities will place photographers close enough to subjects so that they can obtain the desired results. Do expect to pay significantly for this privilege; A full day in a hide can run upwards of 150 to 200 Euros. Photography in Spain can be great, just expect to pay for it (unlike, say, Florida).

Despite these relatively minor photographic caveats, Extremadura is nonetheless a fantastic destination for both birders and more general tourists alike. The balance of birding, culture, and history is fantastic, and a generally pleasant climate, particularly in spring, makes the Extremadura experience one that everyone should have at some point. It would be easy to couple 5 days in Extremadura to a few days further south - around Seville and Doñana National Park  - to round a nice tour of Southern Spain. Alternatively, a fall visit to Extremadura might blend well with some time hawkwatching at Tarifa.

Additional information (including information on birding guides) can be found at the official Extremadura Birding site.

If you like this content, PLEASE consider signing up to 'follow' this blog. All it takes is your email address, and you'll get updates whenever new posts are released (about once/week, that's it). This will help me understand my readership and display its collective weight. You can sign up to follow at the right hand side of the blog, just below the 'archives' section. Thanks to those who have done this already, and I look forward to more of you joining us in the future!


Whew - that was a lot! Now I've to got crank out similar reports for Belize and Guatemala, so stay tuned for those in upcoming weeks!


The end!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Post #96 - Birding in Extremadura, Spain - Part 1 (of 2) - History, geography, and what to expect on your visit!

Just a quick administrative note before we get started. At least one regular reader emailed me that he has had issues commenting on recent entries. Apparently a filter that I was unaware of was somehow triggered and blocked some people from commenting. I have removed that filter, and everyone - registered with Google or not - should now be able to comment. I would greatly appreciate it if folks would give it a go to let me see how it is working! Thanks. Also, please consider "following" this blog if you haven't already done so (a link to do this is below the Blog Archives in the right hand column of the blog.)

Now on with Spain!

This is the first of two posts I will use to recap my recent travels to and birdwatching experiences in Extremadura, Spain (Feb 18-28, 2017)! This first post will introduce you to the region and highlight some of its history and demographics. I will also outline some general birding expectations for your visit. In my second post, I will review the precise birding areas I visited and the exact species that I observed in each. OK, let's get going!

Extremadura is 1 of the 17 autonomous units within Spain, and, with a population just over a million, is one of the least populated regions of the country (Spain has 46 million people total). Agriculture and livestock are the major industries, though deer hunting and ecotourism are growing rapidly in popularity. At 16,000 square miles, Extremadura is quite small; It is quite possible to bird most of it in 4 or 5 days (for those from the US, Massachusetts is 10,500 sq mi and and West Virginia is 24,000). A central or semi-central location will leave only 2 hours driving time to all of the birding locations that I will describe in the second installment. Extremadura itself is less than a 3 hour drive from Madrid or Lisbon, so reaching the destination from either Spain or Portugal is very straightforward. Roads are easy to drive and in good shape. I wouldn't hesitate to rent a car and drive myself around on a return visit.

The regions of Spain with Extremadura highlighted.
Madrid is dead center.

Extremadura is comprised of two provinces, 
ceres in the north and Badajoz in the south.

Extremadura flag

To fully appreciate the amazing bird watching opportunities in Extremadura, it is first helpful to understand at least a small amount of Spanish history and how it contributed to present day demographics. Prior to the arrival of the Romans in the second century BC, the Iberian Peninsula was loosely inhabited by many groups including - among others - Iberians, Celts, Basques, and Phoenicians. The Romans conquered and subjugated these various folks and, in 27 BC, established the province of Lusitania. This municipality encompassed present day Extremadura as well as neighboring Portugal. Mérida was designated as the provincial capital in 25 BC and was subsequently used as a retirement community for Roman Legions (soldiers). The Romans ruled Lusitania until the early 8th century when the region was conquered by Muslim armies. Christians retook the region in the 13th century and held the territory until the arrival of the Napoleonic forces in the 18th century.

Roman bridge in rida

Roman amphitheater in rida.
This was built before Rome's Coliseum!

Roman theater in rida - all but 3 columns are original.

The 20th century saw a brutal civil war that ultimately installed General Francisco Franco - a facist - as dictator in 1939. He ruled until his death in 1975 whereupon democracy was reinstituted. The 1978 constitution designated 17 autonomous states and 2 autonomous cities with the country. These units are still intact today, but rumblings of complete independence for some, particularly from Catalonia in the Northeast, seem to be a continued source of discussion within Spain.

The square towers of Trujillo's fortress 
identify it as Islamic

Catholic Church in the
religious center of Guadalupe


This rather turbulent history manifests itself in a demographic unlike that of anywhere else I have traveled. It seems as though absolutely everyone lives in established villages and towns, none of which sprawl or have any sort of suburbs. This was historically done for protection, and today guarantees that the vast majority of the Extremadura landscape is unsettled. This means lots of habitat is available for birds!


Trujillo and Extremadura countryside beyond.
A large festival associated with Carnival 
can be seen at town's center.

Contemporary habitats range from rocky ridges, to mixed oak woodlands, to forested grazing pastures, to open farmland in the plains, or steppe, regions. Hundreds of small dams create an equal number of artificial ponds and lakes that attract a host of water birds. This variety of habitats regularly supports ~280 species, and over 350 species have been recorded in the region. My visit occurred in late February, a time when wintering species, most notably cranes and waterfowl, are still present and the first spring migrants are arriving.

Reservoir 

Steppe pasture

Rocky ridge 

Wooded hillside

If traveling a long distance to Extremadura (i.e. from the US), I would suggest a visit sometime between mid-April and early May. This will guarantee that more of the migratory, southern European and Mediterranean specialty birds are present. A solid week of spring birding should yield ~175 species, virtually all of which will be new for birders making their inaugural European venture. Weather in late February was pleasant but not particularly balmy. Temperatures rise as spring progresses, but so does the chance of rain. I had no rain of consequence in 9 full days of birding, so that's one huge perk to coming a bit earlier. Lodging fills faster later in the spring, so coming earlier will make finding places to stay a bit easier. Bustards and sandgrouse might require a bit a more work later in the spring as the steppe grasses grow in with the spring rains. I've been told though that finding those species in April/May is still possible, so please don't let this qualification dissuade you from coming later if you wish to see those species. Summer is very hot and should be generally avoided.

Biking for Birds, Spain edition!

With basically zero traffic, getting from place to place is a snap. We spent several nights in Torrejon El Rubio (Adjacent to Monfragüe National Park) and a few more in Trujillo. There's not much lodging between towns, but staying anywhere basically gives you access to everywhere. Most of the lodgings are boutique hotels or converted family estates. Airbnb is a possibility as well and would offer a similarly immersive lodging experience. Everywhere we stayed had character and contributed to our experience in ways that staying in some big box hotel chain would not have. At one place, the owner's son played his clarinet while we ate dessert. It was super classy an reminded me of my clarinet days as 14 year old - except that I was beyond awful at it.

Hotel lodging in Torrejon El Rubio

 Our guest house outside Trujillo

I hope that this post gives you a general overview of what to expect in Extremadura. The real beauty of birding in Extremadura is that there is so much history and culture to experience beyond the birds. In that respect, Extremadura (and Spain, more generally) is an idea destination if you've got a non-birding spouse in tow. In the next installment, I will focus on those birds and the locations where one can view them. Please stay tuned for that in the next few days!