08 February 2018

An Indian Parliament (India) Feb. 9, 2018

We came coursing through the area just 2 weeks before with a singular vision to photograph Indian Courser and quietly add the utterly drab Sind Sparrow to my personal life list. Today’s focus, within almost the same hectares of Haryana state, was entirely different however. It was about owls. India can rightly claim to be one of the best nightbird sites, by day. And this day proved just that, by twilight we had seen 11 individual owls, of 4 species, our very own parliament.

Top target was Indian Eagle Owl, which in spite of its large nest betraying recent breeding activity there, neither adult or pair of chicks were evident during an extensive search near Dighal. While searching there though, the easiest owl for the day put in an appearance, with a feisty 'fivesome' of Spotted Owlets battling each other for vocal supremacy. Another eagle-owl had a nest along the very same river too. A huge swarm of wasps clustered immediately beneath that sticky structure did not bode well for the nest’s potential within my thoughts, but Sanjay swept such pessimism aside, when he calmly gestured towards a Dusky Eagle-Owl quietly sitting alongside both nest and ominous looking swarm. 
By this point, and a dead camera battery later, (following relentless shooting of wetland birds like Indian Spot-billed Duck, Painted StorkBar-headed Goose, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Black-necked Stilt), pre-owl hunt, lunch was looming large in all of our stomachs. Particularly for our driver, who rather belatedly revealed he had skipped breakfast. India is so bustling with birds, and bird photography opportunities, that the scheduled lunchtime kept shifting later, not least when a pair of Red-naped Ibis stood calling from a white-washed snag bathed in gorgeous light for wielders of cameras. The heavy white staining indicating this was not the first time they had sat there.
After a tasty local lunch in a worrisome looking truck stop (‘Delhi belly’ is, after all, a rather too well-used phrase for my liking in these parts), we were back in the field, and back on the trail of owls. Sanjay, smarting from our earlier ‘dip’ (i.e. miss) of the Indian Eagle-Owl instructed the driver on a new destination. I dozed in the middle of the day heat, intermittently waking to see Indian Rollers and other avian brethren adorning dicey looking roadside cablery. We arrived at Bhindawas, more known for species getting themselves wet than tree-dwelling birds, but struck out along a bund in pursuit of our pointy-eared quarry. As we walked the dyke to a given point we passed a party of peacocks, and enjoyed the omnipresent White-throated Kingfisher for about the dozenth time that day. 
Having struck out on the bund, we reached the ill-defined turnaround spot having struck out on the owl too. We swiftly backtracked, with our minds stridently conscious we had another owl opp. to fit in before the onset of darkness over Delhi. As I casually soaked in a young Shikra perched in a tall tree, Sanjay gestured in a very understated fashion to a gnarly tree beside us. On lifting my binoculars, carefully hidden behind a dark tangle of twigs sat a bird with two prominent plumed horns on its crown: Indian Eagle-Owl. Evidently, we had both walked right past them without us either noticing them, and a pair of them not flinching at our previous close passage. However, once cryptic birds know the game is up, following a direct glare in their eyes; their behaviour changes suddenly, and soon both of them were aloft in the air on broad, silent wings, and glided their way across the river, but stopped suddenly, and starkly, in the open. My new camera battery was tested to the limit in this momentary lapse of bad fortune with the species.
One final, and fourth, owl remained on our agenda, and for that we needed to return to Sanjay’s home turf, Sultanpur. The Delhi day was waning, and arguably we were too, but a milky, sweet Masala Chai soon fixed us, and we were soon bumping our way through the Sultanpur Flats, which are not perfectly-flat after all. We directed ourselves at one specific tree, but needed to go neck-deep in a mustard seed field to reach it. We had not even got in close range of the tree, and were indeed further away than a pair of local farmers working the crop, when a Short-eared Owl lifted out of the dense cover provided by said tree, and flew into another one bereft of any cover, where it remained for some time. Two incredibly inconspicuous others remained within the sanctuary of the original tree until after we left. 
With dusk now imminent, we attempted to leave for the mega metropolis of Delhi, conscious of the likely heavy traffic that would try everything it could to impede our return. However, this country is Hindu country, where birds are left to roam freely and unhindered, and so they are there in numbers, and famously tame on this part of the subcontinent, and so we were also impeded by them in our attempts to bring the curtain down on a wonderful ‘Delhi Day’; first a party of Yellow-wattled Lapwings stalked around the car, and then an absurdly confiding Hoopoe virtually begged us to take its photo!

The day had felt like an Indian Summer right in the depth of the country’s winter.

08 November 2017

Costa Rica Bird Challenge: Day 7, (18 Oct 2017)

Shanks and Saltpans….
For the penultimate day of the inaugural Costa Rica Bird Challenge, we were still trailing in third place; just. The first place seemed won on day one, they were in the dust way ahead of us, the Tucan Ticos, and the Redstart Wranglers, with whom we had been playing a game of cat-and-mouse all week long. The race was on, for second place! This day had potential, like so many of the others, but in a different way. We knew we were basically spending a day in the dry Pacific Northwest, so very different from the sweat-inducing humidity we had experienced in Carara, and subsequently some new birds on the horizon. But, on this day the playing field could be opened up significantly, by careful scanning of waterbird areas, where list loading can pay real dividends in a race like this. Every team knew this, and all had plans shrouded in secrecy. Initially, we merely had to meet at La Ensenada for a mangrove boat trip in pursuit of Mangrove Hummingbird, one of the handful of endemics bound by political boundaries (i.e. only found in Costa Rica!) 
Beforehand though, the itinerary was flexible. We headed for some dry country species along the Guacimo Road, which started out very promisingly, with a stream of new species of this habitat, like our first Rufous-naped Wrens, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Rose-throated Becard, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Streak-backed Oriole, and a batch of Black-headed Trogons (our sixth trogon species, with another still to play for later), as well as another stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot
Shortly after setting off in earnest, we also stopped short to make time for our only White-throated Magpie-Jays of the challenge, a stunning and striking species typical of the dry northwest of Costa Rica, where it is positively abundant in the right habitat. We also stopped to admire some White-fronted Parrots framed with a deep blue cerulean sky...
On arrival at La Ensenada Lodge, we had some wiggle room before the boat trip to explore the lodge grounds. First off, a Pacific Screech-Owl was sitting above the bus on arrival, which you would think we’d greet with glee. Not so, it was a species we knew we had over the other teams, and this small advantage had just been wiped away! We set off into the nearby scrub and quickly found our hoped-for target, the local Banded Wren, and also added a calling Spot-breasted Oriole and a hulking Great Black Hawk too, before our boat trip through the mangroves. Sadly, no Mangrove Hummingbirds were evident, and so we docked back and had a wonderful lunch at La Ensenada Lodge
Post-lunch, we had brief walk around the lodge cabins, and Nik (inevitably) found some bright green Orange-fronted Parakeets sitting within a set of bright green leaves, making them hard to pick out for mere mortals. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl tooted nearby, and was also seen. The afternoon was flexible and a potential gamechanger for the teams and the race. We all split off and went our different ways in pursuit of waterbirds. We knew that the nearby Salinas should be good at this hour, with high tide peaking at the time, and it was in terms of numbers, but the variety disappointed us. In spite of thousands of waterbirds, only one non-breeding Red Knot was new for us among the throng of Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated, Wilson’s, Black-bellied, and Collared Plovers, Sanderling, and Short-billed Dowitchers. Of course, on any other day, this would have been a place to spend hours combing the shorebirds and taking in this awesome sight, which it was, but with new species the objective, we needed to scan and move on. We hoped the mangroves would work out better, as I have seen Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Northern Scrub Flycatcher in this set of them before. However, we drew a blank there. Our one respite from a shameful lack of additions, was a low flying Hook-billed Kite that glided across the pans, and was a stellar addition to the list. Finally, with feelings of opportunities lost, we had to start our drive into a very different area indeed, the cloudforests of Monteverde. On arrival at our hotel, the sprawling Hotel El Establo, we quickly added layers of clothing as the chill of the mountains hit us sharply, and tried at dusk for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl on the grounds, with one being heard, and a Mottled Owl also called from the same area. After dinner with the other teams, where it was revealed we were still rooted in third spot, the two other teams went off in search of the screech-owl. I joined up with the leading team and champions in waiting, the Tico Tickers, and went off in search of the owl. On reaching the site though, we found that the Redstart Wranglers had usurped us, and had not only got there earlier, but had seen the owl well and were already leaving! The pressure was on. Luckily, a quick burst of playback later, and the same owl returned our call, and quickly flew onto a mossy branch above us, where it challenged us all to take photos. We all duly obliged.

One more morning of the challenge remained to try and rise one place in the standings...a tense night lie ahead, with missing species swirling around in my head!