30 January 2012

My photos now on Flickr

Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynchus pallidus)Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea)Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebaeki)Medium Ground-finch (Geospiza fortis)Medium Ground-finch (Geospiza fortis)Large Ground-finch (Geospiza magnirostris)
Small Ground-finch (Geospiza fuliginosa)Small Ground-finch (Geospiza fuliginosa)Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)
Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)Sally Lightfoot Crab (Graspus graspus)White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis)Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris)Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus)Giant Antpitta (Grallaria gigantea)Yacare Caiman (Caiman yacare)Southern Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla)Chaco Chachalaca (Ortalis canicollis)Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis)

Several of my friends have mentioned that they've never seen the photos I take on my travels, so in response I've decided to set up a Flickr account. So far I've only created a few photo sets (all of South America), with the Galapagos being the most complete set, but I'll be adding many more photos over the next few days and weeks.

Click on the link above to view.

25 January 2012

Focus on Azure-shouldered Tanager

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera is a scarce and often elusive Atlantic Forest endemic that birders sometimes struggle to distinguish from the much more abundant Sayaca Tanager Thraupis sayaca. However, given reasonable views they can be told apart fairly easily.

Azure-shouldered is slightly but noticeably larger and bulkier than Sayaca Tanager, but the size is not always apparent unless the two species are seen side by side. Much more obvious is the general colouration - Azure-shouldered Tanager is turquoise above with brighter turquoise outer edges to the flight feathers, tertials and greater coverts, and a contrasting duller turquoise grey below (this contrast is sharply defined even on the head and neck). Sayaca Tanager is a very variable grey-blue and generally concolorous above and below, with turquoise tones restricted to outer edges of the wing feathers. On Azure-shouldered Tanager the electric blue lesser coverts are diagnostic but not always visible (especially on 1st winter birds), and the blackish lores and black extending very slightly behind the eye forming a very short faint eye-stripe (visible at very close range) are another key feature. Azure-shouldered also shows a slightly heavier bill (that is often blackish on the upper mandible and greyish on the lower mandible, but not always), but both species show very dark (blackish) inner webs to the tertials, upper wing coverts and flight features on the closed wing.

Sayaca Tanager is abundant in forest edge and semi-open habitats and very conspicuous, even in cities, whereas Azure-shouldered Tanager is a scarce forest interior species that tends to stick to the canopy and is therefore much harder to find. Last July I spent some time at Andy and Cristina Foster's superb photo hide at their Serra dos Tucanos lodge in Rio de Janeiro state, and was able to study this Near-threatened species in some detail. These photos illustrate the features nicely.

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.
Note the contrast between the turquoise nape and crown and the grey blue face,
ear coverts and underparts. The electric blue lesser coverts are not always

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.
The blackish lores are a key identification feature when distinguishing from Sayaca
Tanager, but are not often mentioned or illustrated in field guides.

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.
The blackish lores create a rather aggressive facial expression (cf. Sayaca
Tanager below).

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.
The faint dark eye-stripe is easier to see in this shot of the same bird in the shade.
Note the dark upper mandible.

Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.
Note the turquoise forehead, crown and nape contrasting sharply with the greyer
ear coverts and neck. The black inner webs to the tertials, coverts and primaries
and black primaries contrast vividly with the turquoise outer webs.

Sayaca Tanager Thraupis sayaca, REGUA, RJ state, July 2011. Note the grey blue
plumage, with turquoise tones restricted to the outer edges of the wing feathers.
The lores are concolorous with the rest of the face, isolating the dark eye. The
race found in south-eastern Brazil, T. s. sayaca, has no white in the wing.

The main contact call of Azure-shouldered Tanager is a simple, sharp, high-pitched downslurred seep (reminiscent of Redwing Turdus iliacus), whereas Sayaca Tanager has a shorter and rather almost squeaky call which has upwards deflection in the middle. The sonograms below clearly show the difference.

The songs are quite similar, both being a high-pitched, squeaky notes, but Azure-shouldered is faster, more repetitive and more continuous. Compare below.

The taxonomy of tanagers (Thraupidae), as with many Neotropical bird families, is currently in a state of flux. Azure-shouldered Tanager and Sayaca Tanager are traditionally both placed in the Thraupis genus along with 7 other species. But molecular studies have revealed that the Thraupis is actually paraphyletic (have more than one common ancestor) and consists of 2 clades. Azure-shoudered Tanager, despite having a similar morphology, is actually part of a different clade to Sayaca Tanager, and so will probably be moved to a different or new genus at some point. In the meantime, the Brazilian Committee of Ornithological Records (CBRO), rather confusingly, has moved all species currently in Thraupis into the Tangara genus, effectively removing the Thraupis genus altogether. However, other authorities (including the AOU) have yet to adopt this taxonomy and so I've remained faithful to the traditional classification here.

23 January 2012

A new conservation-minded bird tour company

Today a new bird tour company was launched! So what you might ask? Well, this one really does offer something actually quite different. Rather than blindly aiming for the largest possible species list on each tour (YAWN!!), Wise Birding, set up by my good friend Chris Townend, aims to show people all the endemics and key birds, along with a decent number of other species on their tours, as well as make a financial contribution to the conservation projects they visit. Where possible, the tours are carefully designed to visit sites with active conservation programmes and/or lodges that (really) support conservation. This means that birders joining a tour will be directly helping to conserve the birds and habitats that they visit. To check out the tours available for 2012 visit http://www.wisebirding.co.uk/. One leader in particular comes highly recommended!! :-)

21 January 2012

Birding in the shadow of Christ

Many major cities around the world have a botanical garden that is excellent for birds - Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia are a couple of good examples. Rio de Janeiro in south-east Brazil is no exception, and if you find yourself in the city with some time for birding then a visit to the botanical garden is well worth it.

I first visited Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro in 2006 and was struck not only by the diversity of birds, but also by how tame many of them were. The three main target species here Rusty-margined Guan, Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail and Channel-billed Toucan. These three normally very shy species are conspicuous here and often allow excellent photographic opportunities.

Rusty-margined Guan Penelope superciliaris, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden,
July 2006. A secretive species, birds here are very confiding.

Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail Aramides saracura, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden,
July 2006. A usually shy Atlantic Forest endemic that is unusually bold here.

186 species have now been recorded here, including many Atlantic Forest endemics such as White-necked Hawk, Maroon-bellied Parakeet, Plain Parakeet, Tawny-browed Owl, Saw-billed Hermit, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, Spot-breasted Antvireo, Scaled Antbird, Black-cheeked Gnateater, White-eyed Foliage-gleaner, Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, Pin-tailed Manakin, Blue Manakin, Bare-throated Bellbird, Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant, Brazilian Tanager, Green-headed Tanager, Red-necked Tanager, Rufous-headed Tanager, Temminck's Seedeater and Chestnut-bellied Euphonia. It is worth checking the small streams and ponds here for Striated Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret and even Little Blue Heron.

The botanical garden also holds a population of Common Marmoset Callithrix jacchus. This species has unfortunately been introduced into the area from north-east Brazil and, together with released Common Marmoset C. jacchus x Black-tufted Marmoset C. penicillata hybrids, have largely displaced the native, and now extremely rare, Buffy-tufted Marmoset C. aurita through competition and hybridisation.

Common Marmoset Callithrix jacchus, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, July 2006.

The 140 hectare Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (now a UNESCO biosphere reserve) was created in 1808 by Prince Regent of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal, Dom João VI, to acclimate spices imported from the West Indies. The garden contains 8,000 plants and has an Bromeliário, an Orquidário, and houses for carnivorous plants and cacti.

The famous Avenue of Royal Palms is comprised of 134
Royal Palms. (Photo by Rachel Walls)

The botanical garden holds 8000 plant species, including many mature trees.
(Photo by Rachel Walls)

Located in a wealthy area of Rio de Janeiro close to Copacabana and Ipanema, and adjacent to Tijuca National Park (the largest urban nature reserve in Brazil, covering 3237 hectares and encompassing the famous Cocovado Mountain and Christ the Redeemer statue), the botanical garden is very safe and I feel completely at ease here with binoculars and camera equipment on show. The garden is open from 08:00 to 17:00 daily and admission costs R$6 per person (plus R$7 for parking). There are two entrances, both along Rua Jardim Botânico; one (with a car park) at 1008, and another at 920, and there is a visitor centre, cafe, gift shop and toilets on site (to see location in Google Maps click here). I'd recommend spending at least a half day here, or a whole day if wildlife photography is your thing.

For a list of birds recorded in the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden click here.

20 January 2012

Midwinter apathy

I'm struggling to find a shred of motivation, or dare I say it, interest even, for any local birding whatsoever at the moment. Maybe its the cold dark days? Maybe its living in one of the most birdless places on the planet? Whatever it is, I really could do with a rocket up my arse! Sadly, even a Little Egret flying over and adding itself to my garden list today failed to ignite, well, anything really!

19 January 2012

More photos from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Rainforest of south-east Brazil, north-east Argentina, Paraguay and coastal Uruguay is one of two main centres of endemism in South America, the other being the Chocó region of western Colombia and Ecuador. Around 200 bird species are found here and nowhere else, including 80% of all of Brazil's endemics. Here's a few more photos taken in Rio de Janeiro state in 2011.

Male Brazilian Tanager, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011. This stunning Atlantic
Forest endemic is a frequent visitor to feeders.

Guira Cuckoo, REGUA, November 2011. A common species of more open habitats.

Greenish Elaenia, REGUA, November 2011. Another image of the first record for
Rio de Janeiro state and was first seen at REGUA in May 2008.

Rufous-bellied Thrush - Brazil's national bird, Serra dos Tucanos, July 2011.

Scaled Antbird, REGUA, November 2011. A lowland Atlantic Forest endemic.

White-faced Whistling-Ducks, REGUA, November 2011.

Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher, REGUA, November 2011. A common
Atlantic Forest endemic

Purple Gallinule, REGUA, July 2011. It always looks
odd seeing rails clambering around high up in bushes.

16 January 2012

Birds vs cake

Spent the weekend in Devon for a REGUA meeting, but managed to sneak in a little birding as well. A look at the Otter Estuary and the sea at Budleigh Salterton on Saturday morning (14th) with the Cream Tea Birder found no sign of the long staying Snow Bunting or the reported 4 Pale-bellied Brents in a freezing south-easterly. 1 Red-breasted Merganser, a single Dark-bellied Brent Goose, 2 Stonechat, 1 Peregrine, 4 Reed Bunting, a few Rock Pipit and lots of Northern Gannet and auks moving east were the best we could could muster, so in true Cream Tea Birding style we abandoned the birds and loaded up on cakes at the Lawn Bakery instead!

The Lawn Bakery in Budleigh Salterton - for when there's no birds about

The meeting itself was held at a beautiful house on the edge of Dartmoor. Owners Kevin and Donna are passionate conservationists, in the process of restoring the hay meadows, wet meadows and oak and beech woods on their land, and even creating a small wetland. They have also put up nest boxes for Pied Flycatchers, Common Redstarts, Goosanders and Barn Owls, and now have six pairs of Pied Flycatchers (fledging 17 young last year). A walk around their land yesterday was fairly quiet but did produce an accidentally flushed Tawny Owl. Many thanks Kevin and Donna for being wonderful hosts and facilitating a very productive meeting.

Pied Flycatcher (left) and Common Redstart nest boxes

3 January 2012

Birds at the bar

Birding is growing rapidly in popularity in Brazil and birding tourism in the REGUA area continues to increase. It seems some locals are taking more of an interest in birds as well, and a couple of years ago the owners of a small roadside bar at Duas Pontes in the Três Picos State Park, Rio de Janeiro state, began putting out fruit to attract them. The birds have become used to people and so this is a great place to see and photograph many Atlantic Forest endemics at very close range, and grab a good Brazilian coffee or Agua de coco (the coconut water drink, not the swimwear) at the same time.

The feeders are situated at 470 metres above sea level and attract a different mix of species to the feeders at REGUA. Sayaca Tanager, Green-headed Tanager, Red-necked Tanager, Burnished-buff Tanager, Violaceous Euphonia, Chestnut-bellied Euphonia and Blue-naped Chlorophonia are common (especially in the austral winter when numbers build up), with smaller numbers of Maroon-bellied Parakeet, Spot-billed Toucanet, Olive-green Tanager, Black-goggled Tanager, Ruby-crowned Tanager, Brazilian Tanager, Azure-shouldered Tanager, Golden-chevroned Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Purple-throated Euphonia and Orange-bellied Euphonia. One or two Green Honeycreepers, a scarce bird in the this part of the Atlantic Forest, are usually present, and the hummingbird feeders here attract Sombre Hummingbird – a rather drab but often elusive Atlantic Forest endemic, and one that is extremely difficult at REGUA.

Bar do Russo is located along the main road (RJ-116) between Cachoeiras de Macacu and Nova Friburgo at km 56 (click here to see location in Google Maps). Excursions from REGUA's Guapi Assu Bird Lodge to Pico da Caledônia, Macaé de Cima and the Theodoro Trail stop here en route.

Blue-naped Chlorophonia. Birds at the feeders are used to people and allow close
approach. (Photo by Alan Martin)

Bar do Russo (Photo by Rachel Walls)

Blue-naped Chlorophonias crowd the fruit during the austral winter, when natural
food in the forest is harder to find. (Photo by Adilei Carvalho da Cunha)

The widespread Green Honeycreeper is difficult in this part of the Atlantic Forest
but there are usually one or two at the feeders here.

Violaceous Euphonia. Birds often sit in the trees overhanging the feeders which
provides opportunities for more natural looking photos.

Green-headed Tanager is a common Atlantic Forest endemic that is easy to
photograph here.

Female Chestnut-bellied Euphonia, as Adilei would say "very close". The birds here
are a photographer's dream! Like all of the photos on this post, this was taken
hand-held and without flash (click to enlarge).


Many thanks to Adilei Carvalho da Cunha, Alan Martin and Rachel Walls for permission to use their photos.