Sunday, September 14, 2014

Least Bittern: Shoal Lakes IBA

Special thanks to Donna Martin for sharing her sightings of  Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) in the Shoal Lakes Important Bird Area. I decided to try to photograph them this morning and had enormous success photographing a male and an immature bird (probably hatch year male: note for example the black feathers with fine white tips coming through on the mantle). I was delighted to manage a series of behavioral observations: I loved the way they sneak around like mice and their fishing technique, especially how one wing would open during the back lurch (after the initial forward trust) as a balancing mechanism. I also enjoyed how they would shake their fish after catching them (presumably to kill them before swallowing) and the way they shook their whole body sideways when ingesting larger prey items (presumably to help gravity along!). They were also remarkably dexterous at manipulating prey items with the very tip of the bill. Most amazing of all to watch though, was the incredible flexibility in the legs and feet that enabled them to walk through the reeds clinging to vertical stems with ease! Here is a series of 21 photos that illustrate some of the above points:

Here is the male with his jet black back, fishing on a rock...

In this photo, you can see the bitterns' famous trick of looking forward "under" the bill...

 And here are two more poses of the male fishing...

These next photos are of a different bird with darker markings than the male, although there are black feathers mixed in with the otherwise brown back, which lead me to believe this might be a juvenile male... These first photos show how good at fishing was, catching several fish of different sizes while I watched:

I was impressed by the bittern's ability to handle tiny fry with the very tip of the bill as seen here...

The observations I most enjoyed was watching this Least Bitterns creep through the reeds, especially the amazing legs and huge feet that seemed capable of bending to extreme angles to grip whatever necessary. Watch as the bittern appears through the reeds, bending their body around the narrow gaps between them...

The feet are angled outward to grasp vertical reeds

here are a few photos of the bittern's stride wit hthe amazing reach of those large feet:

In this next shot the bittern had turned 90 degrees - note how the back leg is perpendicular to the body (impressive and graceful!)

A few poses to finish:

A long awaited photo opportunity of this elusive and Threatened (COSEWIC) species!

Friday, August 1, 2014


An amazing finale to the 5th and final field season for the Manitoba was confirmed breeding of Mississippi Kites in a riverside suburb of Winnipeg. You can see me talking about this incredible find on Breakfast Television Winnipeg at:

This species has been expanding northward and has been increasingly taking advantage of well treed suburbs so in some ways their appearance in Winnipeg makes sense; however, none of us foresaw them getting quite this far north quite so quickly. I got back from the field today and had my turn for a brief visit with the city’s illustrious guest and their downy nestling…

Here is the chick on August 6th - growing rapidly! More to follow...

Sunday, July 20, 2014


You can now "hear" this story on CBC Radio at:

Many of you will know how much I have poured my heart and soul into coordinating the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas over the past six years.  Some of you will also know how much emphasis I have placed on point counting (an extremely useful method of surveying birds where one stands still for a fixed period of time and counts all birds seen and heard), having completed approx 2800 for this project. After five years of summer point counts, on July 18, 2014, I prepared to do what I knew would be my last point counts for the atlas. I was feeling a little nostalgic as I headed out at 2:30 am for a 16 km hike across the dimly lit tundra to get into the last reachable square from the cabin we were staying in. I wasn’t quite expecting the grand finale that my last morning counting would turn out to be.  Early on, I got a brief look at a cream coloured wolf and then near the end of one point count I noticed some odd behaviour from a female Black Scoter – calling agitatedly and flying in a circle before disappearing behind a sedge meadow… then I noticed two little fuzz balls swimming quickly in the grassy edges towards the sound of her voice – this was the first confirmed breeding Black Scoter for the project!  As if that wasn’t enough, just seconds after I finished my final point count, put my notebook in my pocket, and reached down for my day pack, I noticed a movement ahead of me… incredibly, I was looking at my lifer WOLVERINE, a mammal I have dreamt of seeing for the better part of my life! I quickly and quietly took out my camera and the wolverine continued moving in my direction, busily searching the edges of the little ponds for food and scaring the phalaropes and other birds. I got a series of photos of the wolverine running and jumping across little water channels including the one below.  I still can’t quite believe it! Not a bird oddly enough but a truly magic moment (more tales and photos from the season to follow when the final field season completely wraps up for good in a few weeks). Here is a series of shots of this incredible animal:

My first view was something like this - light coloured fur moving through the low vegetation

It only took a second to realise I was looking at a Wolverine!

The wolverine was foraging, apparently looking for birds nests by digging and sniffing along the edge of the many pools and streams. Fortunately, the animal looked up and even showed me their tongue.

 Here is a series of the wolverine running and jumping across the streams and around the edge of the ponds and scaring the phalaropes

Eventually the animal kept on going (completely ignored me the whole time) and disappeared, leaving me shaking at the knees!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nocturnal owl Surveying

It is Nocturnal Owl Survey season here in Canada and two nights ago I was treated to a few rewards before my survey got started – a pair of Barred Owls (Strix varia) duetting in the evening light (photo below shows the male, based on voice) and a Canada Lynx walking along the dirt road! Although common in some parts of their range, Barred Owls occur in low densities in Manitoba and are always a treat for us here.

The following night, I came across 4 Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) displaying in a clearing in a jack pine stand. The owls sometimes glided and sometimes zig-zagged over the clearing and would periodically clap their wings below them producing an audible “snap” noise (such aerial display also seen in other Asio species such as Short-eared Owl). Both sexes were involved as I heard both male and female voices, although I can’t be sure who was clapping. I took a little time in between survey routes to try to photograph this behaviour but was unsuccessful, although I got these shots of a calling bird (presumed male based on voice) at the edge of the clearing. I couldn’t stay long because I had to go on and do other surveys but it was sure hard to tear myself away from the performance.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

the critically endangered Chinese Crested Tern

Once feared extinct, and with fewer than 50 mature individuals in the world, the critically endangered Chinese Crested Tern is one of the rarest birds in the world. They breed on islands in the Strait of Taiwan and visit the Minjiang Estuary on Fujian’s coast typically in May – June. It is therefore hard to describe the emotion I felt when two of these magnificent birds flew in and landed at the estuary on April 5th (one of the earliest records ever) – I think I am still in a state of shock!

曾经我们担心中华凤头燕鸥已经灭绝, 现在知道在整个世界有少于50!
中华凤头燕鸥筑巢在台湾海峡的一些小岛, 5,6月到闽江. 因此, 45日在闽江口看到两只飞过来上滩, 很难交待那一刻的情感. 我还不敢相信!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Giant Mega!

The Giant Antpitta was once considered one of the most elusive birds in the Neotropics – an absolute mega! That is, until Ángel Paz in western Ecuador trained a female Giant Antpitta named Maria to come in to his call feed on worms. Maria, however, has since passed on and the Giant Antpitta is once again an extremely difficult bird to see. The “eastern” Giant Antpitta (subspecies on the eastern slope of the Andes), which might warrant full species status, is even more of an enigma. For that reason this sighting of a bird I identified as an Eastern Giant hopping along the trail in the early morning on the Guacamayos trail near Cosanga, Ecuador (3 km below the shrine according to my GPS) got my heart racing! Here is a collage of three photos of that truly magic moment. This is one of the 14 antpitta species I saw on my trip to Ecuador (9 on trails, 5 to worms) and definitely the biggest and most “mega”.

It turns out, however, that the identification of eastern Giant Antpitta is not at all straightforward as they are very similar to Undulated Antpitta and, since I didn’t hear this bird call, I have had to pour over my photos and the literature. The result is that I believe this truly is an eastern Giant due to the warm buffy throat with barring all the way up to chin, only a hint of a malar stripe (not an obvious dark strip as would be expected from Undulated), rich chestnut on forecrown and also ear coverts, narrow barring on underparts, and green tones to upperparts. The presence of a wing bar is also an interesting feature that is not noted as a feature of this subspecies but based on comparison of other subspecies seems to point to Giant as well. The elevation of this sighting also ought to be too low for Undulated, although apparently Undulated has been recorded near the start of the trail, which is already on the lower edge of their elevation range. That is my conclusion but expert opinions are thoroughly welcome – please let me know what you think!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Owls, potoos and nightjars of Ecuador (and a tinamou to boot)

I recently returned from a 4-week independent birding trip to Ecuador (buses and hiking lots!) where I saw 656 species of birds without ever making it to the coast, including 19 owl species, 14 species of antpitta (9 on trails and 5 to worms) and many more, for example 70 species each of hummingbirds and tanagers! I hope to prepare some blog posts on the trip and will start, as always, with the night birds.

This trip was basically a transect across northern Ecuador from east to west. We start therefore in the lowlands of the Amazon basin in the area around Yasuní National Park. One of the highlights for me here was getting photos of Spectacled Owl. Spectacled Owl is the largest of the three species in the genus Pulsatrix (some authors split it to give a fourth species though not widely accepted) and can reach 52 cm in length. The haunting and resonant song of the Pulsatrix owls is as unique and fascinating as their appearance! This owl woke me from my tent at 2 am - I'd like to think to tell me that the rain had stopped but more likely there was some sort of territorial dispute going on because at least 3 were hooting up a storm and seemingly not too happy... they were always very high in the tall canopy so I felt lucky to manage a couple of photos.
Common in the lowlands, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl here was easily findable by day (elsewhere in their range I have found them more readily by night).

Also extremely common in the lowlands is the Tropical Screech-Owl. This is a familiar owl that readily hunts around lights and is not shy of humans. There are both grey and rufous morphs and this bird is an intermediate or brown morph.

As we move upslope in the eastern Andes, the Spectacled Owl shown above eventually gets replaced by their slightly smaller congenitor the Band-bellied Owl. The Band-bellied Owl is typically found between 700 and 1600 m ASL on the eastern slope of the Andes only (whereas the Spectacled Owl is found in the lowlands both east and west of the Andes and in Central America). In the Andes it is common for a species to be confined to a relatively narrow elevational belt on one slope or other and this is part of what gives the region such extraordinary biodiverity.  The most obvious difference is the brown barring on white underparts of the Band-bellied Owl and their dark eye colour.

This Band-bellied Owl was roosting in a dense bamboo stand at approximately 1300 m ASL along the road to Pacto Sumaco, Ecuador. Unfortunately heavy cloud and rain left me with very dark conditions for the photo.

At a similar elevational as Band-bellied Owl, we find the Napo Screech-Owl, a species that also goes by the names of Foothill Screech-Owl and Rio Napo Screech-Owl. However, not all authorities award this taxon full species status; some treating it as a subspecies of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. The differences within the Vermiculated Screech-Owl complex are very subtle (Napo Screech-Owl seemingly having a shorter song and perhaps slightly shorter wings and toes). This species occurs in a relatively narrow elevational belt in the foothills of the eastern Andes, rarely as low as 300 m ASL and sometimes as high as 1500 m ASL. I was lucky to photograph this owl at dusk along the road to Pacto Sumaco, Ecuador, at approximately 1300 m ASL (my first owl lifer of the trip).

Continuing up the eastern slope of the Andes, I met a famous mystery owl, usually referred to as the “San Isidro Owl” because Cabañas San Isidro near Baeza in eastern Ecuador is the very best place to see this species (and one of only a few locations where they have been recorded). The “San Isidro Owl” looks like a hybrid between Black-banded Owl and Black-and-white Owl; however, it occurs at higher elevation than either of those species (approx 2000 m ASL). The current thinking is that this might be an unnamed subspecies of Black-banded Owl, despite the fact that the song seems more similar to that of Black-and-white Owl. Further genetic studies are required to resolve this mystery. Despite the great mystery surrounding this owl, they are actually easy to see hunting moths under the lights at Cabañas San Isidro, where I took this photo. It was a great feeling to catch up with this avian enigma (even if it doesn’t really fit on any “list”).

Continuing even further upslope in the upper-level cloud forests and the high elevation temperate forests of the Andes (above 2000 and usually below 3600 m ASL) there is a fascinating species of screech-owl that is extremely difficult to see: the White-throated Screech-Owl. With their rich charcoal brown upperparts and warm buff underparts, their strongly contrasting white throat, and the lack of ear-tufts, the White-throated Screech-Owl is a very distinctive looking screech-owl (in a genus that is arguably characterized more by similarity than difference). They are also rather large for a screech-owl and can reach 27 cm in length. I had only previously managed poor looks at this species in Colombia and Peru, so I was delighted to finally succeed in photographing this beautiful owl in the thick but stunted moss forests along the steep walls of the Pululahua crater (west of Quito, Ecuador). Perhaps the lower canopy in this habitat increased my chances of seeing this species, but I felt it was an incredible stroke of luck when I spotted this bird, who was not vocalizing, at around 2 am in the light of a half moon, after a long night of hearing very little. The owl was kind enough to lean forward and look curiously at me while remaining partially hidden on the gnarled thick branch, which lends a lot of character to the photo in my personal opinion. I recall that moment, after the owl flew, when I nervously looked at the photos on the camera to see if they were sharp (I had been perched rather precariously on the steep slope and wasn’t sure if I had been able to hold steady or not). Although not a lifer, getting these photos was a trip highlight for me!

When crossing from the eastern Andes over to the western slope (over some spectacular high passes), the traveler encounters some very arid intermontane valleys, deprived of moisture by the massive rain shadow, and full of eerily strange vegetation combinations of gnarled montane scrub and cacti. It was in one such dry valley near Quito, known as the Jerusalem Protected Forest, where I encountered one of the most “diabolical” owls in all of the Neotropical Realm – and I mean diaboloical in the very best of ways, as in diabolically awesome! The Stygian Owl (Asio stygius), is named after the River Styx (Rio de la Muerte), which of course in Greek mythology was the gateway to the afterlife. In this owl’s case, it is the very dark, almost black plumage and the devilish long and close-set ear-tufts that inspired such a diabolical name (they don’t occur anywhere near Greece though, just to be clear). Indeed, in part because of their nocturnal haunts, owls have symbolism of death and/or the afterlife in many cultures from all around the world, but the Stygian Owl arguably best demonstrates that imagery. This is surely one of the most beautiful little devils anyone could hope to see!

In this case, I had gone to the dry intermontane valleys to dry out after so much rain only to get absolutely poured upon (rarely rains there they said – huh!). Amazingly though, I stumbled upon this awe-inspiring creature perched out in the light rain, after the big downpour, waiting for night to fall. Here are two photos, with and without flash (you can see the rain drops better when flash was used).  In case you’re wondering, the Stygian Owl is in the genus Asio and hence related to both the Long-eared Owl and Short-eared Owl but larger than either of those two species (reaching 46 cm) and darker. Stygian Owl is widespread in the Neotropics from southwest Mexico to northeasternmost Argentina, and also in the Caribbean, in a variety of forest and woodland types (but usually in slightly more open habitats).

Moving down the western slope of the Andes one expects to find the very dry forests produced by the massive Andean rain shadow. However, in northern Ecuador and southern Colombia, i.e. a small area around the Equator known as the Chocó region, the western slope of the Andes remain very wet and shrouded in cloud forest (very unlike the western slope in Peru and Chile). The Chocó region has many species not found on the eastern slope and its own set of endemics. My first target here was the Colombian Screech-Owl, who is only found on the western slope and only between 1300 m and 2300 m ASL and only in Colombia and Ecuador.

The Colombian Screech-Owl was only recently split from the Rufescent Screech-Owl (M. ingens) primarily due to vocal differences. Both species are extremely similar in appearance, although the lower tarsi are bare on the Colombian Screech-Owl, as you can see in these photos (versus feathered to the base to the base of the toes in Rufescent). Like many screech-owls, there are two colour morphs of Colombian Screech-Owl and I was lucky to find two individuals of the grey-brown morph, which I believe is much less common than the rufous morph. Although I had already seen one at Bella Vista, I was especially fortunate with this sighting at the great Reserva Las Grallarias in northwest Ecuador. Professional guide Dušan Brinkhuizen had found this owl calling from a day roost in the very early morning and I was able to find the roosting bird from his description of the spot. I waited in the late afternoon hoping to observe the owl become active. Amazingly, almost a half hour before sunset, the hour started preening and then flew to a low stump (followed by more preening), so I got to watch this bird in the dim light for over 20 minutes. I even tried experimenting by cranking up the ISO and taking some photos without flash. I have posted two photos here (with and without flash) for you to compare (the photo without flash is rather noisy but I still like it). Note also the pinkish eyelids.

I continued my descent of the western Andes and, although I managed to see my other targets in the Chocó region, the Cloud Forest Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium nubicola) and Chocó Screech-Owl (Megascops centralis) I only managed very poor quality photos of them so I won’t be sharing those here. Nonetheless, it is worth sharing a few images of other nightbirds from this trip. Returning to the beginning, back down in the Amazon basin, I enjoyed fabulous looks at a day roosting Great Potoo. See if you can spot the potoo in the first photo with a wide-angle lens and then scroll or click forward to see the closer shots. With their exceptionally pale plumage, and subtle vermiculated markings, the Great Potoo can really blend against some of the whiter branches of the tall rainforest canopy trees. They pass the day perched as though they were a motionless branch and become active at dusk.

Higher up the eastern slope of the Andes, there is another potoo species that is notoriously difficult to see. The Andean Potoo is only found above 2000 m ASL and is one fo the most difficult potoos to encounter. This species is characterized by their white shoulder blaze. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to photograph this Andean Potoo on day roost near Cabañas San Isidro in a typicvally roosting position on a cercopia stump. Again, see if you can spot the potoo in the first wide angle shot before looking at the next two photos (increasingly closer). 

On the western slope at Refugio Paz de las Aves, I was able to photograph two members of the nightjar family thanks to Ángel Paz and his family. The first is a magnificent roosting male Lyre-tailed Nightjar on a cliff side. Amongst nightjars, this bird with their enormous tail is surely one fo the most spectacular!

The second was a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk on day roost and again I have shown two photos, one far and one zoomed in. 

I thought I would end this post with a photo of a day bird at night. This is a night roosting Great Tinamou. One interesting fact about Great Tinamou is that they spend the night in trees, unlike most other tinamous which sleep on the ground. This was not new to me so when I heard a calling bird at dusk I took the time to try to photograph them. However, I was very surprised when I eventually saw the bird and noticed that this bird has settled for the night on a large branch but was not perched with their toes gripping the branch but rather with the tarsi resting on top of the branch and the bird hence balanced on their tarsi (the toes were clenched shut but not gripping anything as can be seen in this photo). As bird have a tendon locking mechanism that enables them to sleep on the perch without falling off, I was surprised that this tinamou could sleep while balancing on their tarsi – they would need to sleep very still to maintain balance and avoid the risk of falling – a most unexpected discovery!

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