Every year we send a few of our guides to the Space Coast Birding Festival, in Titusville Florida. In it’s 23rd year, this is one of the largest birding festivals in the US with tour companies from around the world. Titusville is close to Cape Canaveral National Seashore, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and lots of other great birding spots where you can see Florida Scrub Jay, Snail Kite and Limpkin, just to name a few. It is very easy to get to from Orlando!
This year Simon Thompson, Kevin Burke and Emilie Travis represented Ventures Birding Tours, leading field trips and hanging out at our booth in the Exhibit Center.
Simon led three trips to Orlando Wetlands Park and Kevin led one trip there as well. This fabulous birding destination is not actually in Orlando, but rather in the town of Christmas. One of their favorite birds from this spot was a Least Bittern. These secretive marsh birds are seldom seen, so it was treat to get a good look!
They also got some good looks at American Bitterns, which are also usually hard to see.
Another highlight from Orlando Wetlands was a pair of resident Sandhill Cranes dancing for spectators right in the middle of the path!
Kevin enjoyed being one of the bird guides for Port Canavaral and Pelican Island boat tours. The Pelican Island boat tour was rainy, except for a small window near dusk when they got a beautiful double rainbow! Despite the rain, they got some great looks at Roseate Spoonbills, Magificent Frigatebird, Glossy Ibis and lots more!
One of Emilie’s favorite days was co-leading a trip to Blue Spring State Park. Cold water pushed the manatees into the warmer spring waters that are a constant 72. In the 23 years of this festival the normal counts of manatee were about 40, but they were blessed with 524 counted that morning! Emile deemed the birding group the “Holy Sea Cows” and it was a blast!
Emilie’s trip then continued on a riverboat cruise along the St. Johns River, seeing record numbers of Purple Gallinules and Limpkin. They also scored a Barred Owl as well as both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons on the same tree!
Emilie also led sunrise and sunset kayak tours to Mullethead Isand, a protected Roseate Spoonbill Rookery. Seeing magenta pinks enhanced by the copper tones from the rising sun was surreal! Both mornings were crisp and windy so a little less comfortable to start but once in boats and watching sunrise they were all were good!
Kayaking the sunset tour on Saturday was most spectacular because they got to see lots of dolphins and manatee swimming close to their boats along with some bioluminescent comb jellyfish!
Both Kevin and Emilie also led trips to TM Goodwin Wildlife Management Area. produces grand numbers of wetland species including hundreds of American White Pelicans. This year their numbers were less than a 100 but last year more water in the unit produced nearly 1000!
Everyone saw lots of Limpkins during the Festival. In the US this species is generally only found in Florida, but their range is quickly expanding. They feed on apple snails and a non-native apple snail is benefiting this species.
After the Festival ended, Kevin and Simon did some birding at Lake Apopka and saw a couple of their favorite species of the trip: Ash-throated Flycatcher and Fulvous Whistling Duck. Ash-throated Flycatchers are more common in the Southwest US, but winter in small numbers in the Southeast.
We look forward to returning to this great festival again next year. Maybe we will see you there!
Our quick, week-long Guatemalan getaway was focused on birding the foothills and highlands, from the slopes of the Volcano Atitlán to the beautiful city of Antigua, for an assortment of range-restricted species and regional endemics.
The excellent Los Andes Nature Reserve was our first destination and an early start to the day ensured that we would arrive with the entire day to spend here.
Some quick stops on the main road in produced our first views of White-throated Magpie Jay, Gray Hawk, Black Phoebe, and Grayish Saltator. After re-energizing with a cup of coffee grown on the reserve, we were ready to explore the mix of coffee, quinine, tea, and macadamia crops and forested slopes and ravines. A fun 40-min ride in the back of a pick-up truck took us to a nice patch of cloud forest higher up in the reserve.
The main target for the afternoon was the Azure-rumped Tanager. Soon after entering the forest we had numerous Townsend’s, Wilson’s, and Golden-crowned Warblers and Slate-throated Redstarts. The fantastic songs of Brown-backed Solitaires rang out from all around us while raucous flocks of Bushy-crested Jays moved through the forest. We enjoyed fine views of Green-throated Mountain-Gem, a hummingbird endemic to Northern Central America.
We at last saw a few Azure-rumped Tanagers, along with a spectacular male Blue-crowned Chlorophonia and the abundant Yellow-winged Tanager. On the walk back down, a short jaunt off-trail with our excellent local guides got us incredible views of a male Resplendent Quetzal, another target on the group’s most wanted list.
Around the lodge, the gardens and hummingbird feeders attracted a nice variety of birds to keep us busy for the afternoon – Rufous & Violet Sabrewings, and Blue-tailed & Ruby-throated Hummingbirds formed a constant stream of activity around the feeders, while Clay-colored Thrushes, Baltimore & Spot-breasted Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Black-headed Saltators, and Melodious Blackbirds were seen in the gardens.
The next morning we birded our way up through the coffee plantation, where some early morning sunshine and clear skies brought out the raptors.
A soaring Hook-billed Kite was a bit of a surprise and we also managed Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. A short scramble down a steep incline gave us stellar views of lekking Blue-throated Goldentails. It was soon time to be on our way to the reserve of Los Tarrales – but not until we’d enjoyed another delicious meal and fresh coffee!
Los Tarrales is only about an hour and a half away on the slopes of the same volcano as Los Andes, but being on a different side and at a lower elevation, we knew that it would have some different birds.
An easy afternoon stroll up the main track took us past verbena flowers abuzz with Cinnamon Hummingbirds and treetops full of Blue-gray Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and Boat-billed Flycatchers. An inquisitive Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl gave us great views in the afternoon light and White-bellied Chachalacas gave their noisy calls around the grounds.
The next morning we further explored the forest via the Rinconada Trail, which climbs up in elevation to a few different viewpoints.
The forest was alive with birds – from the beautiful Long-tailed Manakin, and Collared Trogon, to the diminutive Tody Motmot and the boisterous Rufous-naped Wren. A soaring King Vulture was a nice addition, and Tennessee Warblers were everywhere! Close encounters with Lesson’s Motmot, White-winged Tanager and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper all added to the morning’s diverse experience.
After lunch, we left the Volcano Atitlan for the lake of the same name.
A brief stop at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) turned up the only Slender Sheartail of the trip, a female perching in the reeds on the lakeshore. We found a nice raft of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead on the lake. A Sora called out from the reeds while Green Herons stalked among the edges. We arrived at our hotel in Santiago Atitlan with a bit of time to enjoy the gardens and take in the lake view before dinner.
The optional hike up Volcán Tolimán was planned for the next morning and a few of our group were just crazy enough to give it a shot – the allure of the Horned Guan was just too strong not to!
We met shortly after 4 AM for coffee and to grab our pack meals for the day, and we were off, on foot, straight out from our hotel. A path picked up in the middle of town soon led us steadily uphill into coffee and avocado plantations. Soon enough we were hearing the calls of Great Horned Owl, and we got good looks at a Whiskered Screech-Owl calling overhead. Mexican Whippoorwills and Fulvous Owls were all heard before first light, as were the high-pitched screams of Highland Guans.
A flock of about 45 Gray Silky Flycatchers moved from treetop to treetop, while Bar-winged Orioles and Blue-throated Motmots called around us. The locals had crops growing even this high up and we passed corn and red and black beans on our way to the primary forest farther up. The trail had now become an unrelenting, continuous climb uphill, and we could feel the air getting thinner as we climbed. We took our time and continued birding during our breaks, finding Hermit and Crescent-chested Warblers, Greater Pewee, Rufous-collared Robin, and Rose-throated Becard on the way. Just as we were reaching our limit, our local guide returned from a side trail to say he’d just heard a Horned Guan calling. We left the main trail and excitedly followed Freddy. The trail soon became non-existent and the footing more treacherous, but we soon were in position and all managed wonderful views of this absurd species. After obtaining a few photos and appreciating this ‘unicorn turkey’ to the fullest, we began to make our descent, now in excellent spirits.
We had found the guans before 10 AM, and now had the rest of the day to bird our way back down the way we came. We found Mountain Trogons and Blue-and-white Mockingbirds. We got incredible looks at a rufous morph Northern (Guatemalan) Pygmy Owl being mobbed by a Rivoli’s Hummingbird and killer views of a pair of Rusty Sparrows near the end of our hike.
The other half of our group which skipped the hike enjoyed a more leisurely day with a full breakfast and later start. Even still, they managed to get wonderful looks at a Blue-throated Motmot, something that the rest of us ended up missing this trip!
Finca Chichavac’s pine oak woodlands was our stop the next morning, which began cool and clear (we certainly needed our jackets!). Steller’s Jays greeted us as we stepped from the van, along with Black-vented Orioles, Blue-and-white Mockingbirds, and Hutton’s Vireo. On the cattle farm we enjoyed great looks at Tufted FlycatcherRed-faced Warbler and the only Spotted Towhee of the trip. Pink-headed Warbler, endemic to Mexico and Guatemala, was one of our main target birds and we eventually got incredible views! We also added a lovely male Amethyst-throated Mountain-Gem and Pine Flycatcher.
After a filling lunch and a delicious corn cheesecake (it’s way better than it sounds) at a restaurant built in the style of a Swiss chalet, we headed to Antigua with the afternoon free to shop and explore.
Our hotel, the Posada Don Rodrigo, encompasses three historic houses dating back well over 300 years (it is said to be one of the oldest buildings in the Americas), and provides a convenient location from which to explore the cobblestone streets and picturesque Spanish Colonial architecture of this small and colorful Guatemalan city.
The postcard view of the Santa Catalina Arch set amid the backdrop of the towering Volcán Agua was visible right outside the hotel entrance while Central Park and the La Merced Church were both less than a 5-minute walk away. The vibrant, bustling streets were quite the change from what we’d been experiencing on the trip so far, but it was nice to switch gears and take in the non-avian sights for a bit!
Our final birding stop of the trip was at Finca El Pilar, located just 10 minutes from our Antigua hotel. At the observation area, several Black-headed Siskins joined a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the top of a bare tree while a small flock of colorful Hooded Grosbeaks flew overhead.
A pair of Collared Forest-Falcons were too well hid to lay eyes on but we enjoyed hearing their hilarious calls. Acorn Woodpeckers and Townsend’s Warblers were everywhere! The overlook view of three volcanoes – Agua, Acatenango, and the smoking Fuego – was nothing short of spectacular!
After lunch, we visited the nearby Museo Santiago de los Caballeros, which offered a fascinating insight into Guatemala’s colonial history. Soon enough though it was time to make our way back to Guatemala City, where we would have dinner and tally up our checklists for the final time. In just one short week our group encountered 221 species including all the big targets – Pink-headed Warbler, Azure-rumped Tanager, Horned Guan, and Resplendent Quetzal!
A special thanks goes
out to Daniel Aldana and Operador Latino, as well as the other local guides
Freddy, Chus, and Salvin, plus our amazing driver Luis, and last but not least
our wonderful group of clients – for making this a fantastic and memorable
Regua Lodge and excursions, Rio do Janeiro, Brazil
November 22-30, 2019
To many people, Brazil evokes beaches, bronzed bodies and lively
entertainment, while to others it’s a land of vast rainforests, unique birds
and critically-endangered ecosystems. It’s a huge country and on this trip we
were only going to see a small part of the state of Rio de Janeiro along
Brazil’s east coast.
We were all picked up at the very convenient Hotel Linx at the Rio Airport by Regua’s driver, Alceni, for our 1.5 hour drive to Regua Lodge, set in the shadow of Serra de Orgao National Park’s craggy peaks. Originally a ranch, Regua is now a birding destination for birders and naturalists from all over the world.
Our first walk was on the property around the large wetland complex that had been recreated in the valley.
A haven for waterbirds, Cattle Egrets now nest, along with Black-crowned Night and Boat-billed Herons; Wattled Jacanas and Common and Purple Gallinules are abundant and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds nest in the reedbeds, along with Greater Ani, Great Kiskadee and Social Flycatcher. Highlights had to be the soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle and the Common Pauraque sitting on 2 eggs on the side of the trail. The birding was excellent.
Despite the gray conditions, we spent the afternoon in the open fields outside Regua. With the deforestation and the wet fields, the uncommon Giant Snipe has now become far easier to see and has probably considerably expanded its range. Other birds of the open country included Burrowing Owl, Streamer-tailed Tyrant and the strange and entertaining Guira Cuckoo. A stop at the edge of the woods on the way home produced great views of a Tawny-browed Owl.
Our first excursion was north to search for the localized Three-toed Jacamar, which is restricted to a few locations in interior coastal Brazil. Stops along the way produced the beautiful and enigmatic Toco Toucan, as well as Crested Black-Tyrant and Ash-throated Crake. Despite their global rarity, it was not a difficult bird to find at all and I believe we saw at least 4 pairs. And because we were so close to the state of Minas Gerais we decided to cross the line to add an e-bird list and our Green-barred Woodpecker was the only sighting of the trip!
It was off to the beach the next day, but not to Copacabana or any other famous Brazilian beach spot. Our final destination was the Restinga habitat along the coast; home to the endemic Restinga Antwren.
Along the way we stopped at various wetlands and coastal habitats seeing Gray-hooded and Kelp Gulls, Common, Royal and Sandwich Terns and a good selection of migrant shorebirds. The Restinga Habitat has been destroyed along a good part of the coast, but thankfully we managed to see the Antwren without too much difficulty.
We stayed on the grounds of Regua Lodge the next day and decided to hike the Green Trail to the waterfall. The trail is fairly steep, but we took it slowly finding a good selection of forest birds along the way.
Flycatchers are always well-represented and we found Yellow-olive, Sepia-capped, Whiskered and Ochre-bellied. Swallow-tailed (Blue) Manakins were calling all along the trail and we all got great views of the gorgeous Black-cheeked Gnateater.
It was quite hot high on Pico Caledonia above the lingerie capital of Brazil (Nova Friburgo) and we needed the 4 x 4 Toyota to climb the very steep cobbled road. Our target was of course the Gray-winged Cotinga, a critically rare species that lives within a 400m range and is probably below 1,000 individuals. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but our supporting cast included Diademed Tanager, Black-and-gold Cotinga and Mouse-colored Tapaculo.
On the way back to Regua we stopped at the old road now called the Theodoro Trail. This is a somewhat reliable spot for the uncommon Brazilian Laniisoma (Shrike-like Cotinga) – which alas we only heard in the high canopy. Bare-throated Bellbirds were clanging away in the canopy and a Rufous-breasted Leaftosser showed itself nicely along the edge of the trail.
The Waldenoor Trail was another trail on the Regua property. Only about a 30 minute drive away from the lodge over somewhat bumpy roads, this trail snaked up through the forest through a few private houses and gardens, but it was still a great birding spot. It was a great place for forest birds, and some of the highlights including nesting Long-tailed Potoo (with a delightful fluffy chick), nesting Chestnut-crowned and Crested Becards, and an impressive large White-throated Woodcreeper.
A walk around the Regua wetlands in the afternoon produced a pair of delightful Rufous-sided Crakes, a couple of probably transient Snail Kites and a couple of Muscovy Ducks. We continued our search for Masked Duck, but once again they evaded us.
The following day was another excursion, but to middle elevations at Macae de Cima – just this side of Nova Friburgo. The weather again was a little foggy but hopefully this would not affect the birding. We made our usual stop in the farm fields outside of Regua where an Ash-throated Crake gave us great views.
Birding along the Macae de Cima road was very good and very easy with wonderful Green-crowned Plovercrests singing along the road where we also watched a Scale-throated Hermit building her nest. A Dusky-tailed Antbird showed very well, as did both White-browed Foliage-gleaner and Sharp-billed Treehunter; more somewhat-confusing furnarids!
A drive to the very peak found us deep in the fog again but on the downhill hike we did find a couple of great birds: Hooded Berryeater and Sharpbill, that offered adequate views considering the weather conditions!
Some of us drove and some took a plane, but we all ended up
at the hotel in Iowa (“Eye-oh-way”), Louisiana at the correct time! Thank
goodness for cell phones, so we could at least keep track of each other on our
Our “Beat the Crowds” rail trip that first afternoon was postponed due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, so we all joined a very pleasant, albeit foggy, trip along some quiet side roads in the rice country. One of our first birds was a Dickcissel, closely followed by great views of both Sedge and Marsh Wrens – all excellent birds to start our trip.
Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese flew over and we had our first (of several) Vermilion Flycatchers of the tour. A brief stop in a pine lot was amazing with a day-time roost of 20 or so Barn Owls – more seen in one day than many of us had seen in our lifetime!
One of the attractions of the festival was the food, although vegetarian options can be challenging at times. After a classic Cajun sausage meal our first evening, we moved on to crawfish etouffee, catfish bites, shrimp and a veggie plate – definitely something here for all of us.
Our afternoon activity was walking (well maybe clambering) through a very tufty and overgrown field looking for sparrows. Sedge Wrens were the default little brown bird that we flushed, but eventually Casey spotted a very furtive sparrow which turned out to be a Henslow’s.
Waterbirds are a predominant feature of the area, with huge
flocks of White-faced Ibis being abundant, along with White Ibis, and Roseate
Spoonbill. Flocks of Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese were constant sights
and sounds as they flew overhead and the most abundant duck was Northern
Shoveler with smaller numbers of Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Green-winged
Thankfully we had low ticket numbers for the combine rides, so we could head out birding before returning to the rice fields for our turn on the combine harvesters. One of our first stops was the wonderful water treatment plant in Crowley. Here we were able to walk around at our leisure and enjoy the vast numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Redhead and American Avocet.
A large flock of Tree Swallows was feeding low over the lake and it didn’t take us too long to find Cave, Barn, Northern Rough-wing and even Bank amongst the horde!
The combine rides and observing the rails as they escape from the harvest are the undoubted star attractions of the festival and while the rails are easier to see from the sidelines, how often can one ride a combine harvester?
Covered in dust and chaff we all saw Sora, King, Virginia and Yellow Rails as they flushed from the fields, but the bumping of the combine made using binoculars and cameras almost impossible. However, as the combines cut the rice swaths into smaller and smaller sections, the rails became concentrated and soon flew out into the adjacent fields. This is when the photographers had a fighting chance of getting pictures.
Cameron Parish is probably the most bird-rich parish in Louisiana, so we spent the next 2 days exploring the marshes, cheniers (coastal woodlots), shore and fields of this coastal parish.
A flock of Sandhills soared out of the morning mist, revealing a single image of black and white flying alongside them – a Whooping Crane. Although it was a distant apparition, we all got to enjoy in-flight views of this rarity.
Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels and both Vermilion and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were “wire-birds” along the roadsides and pairs of magnificent Crested Caracaras sat on nearby fences and trees, as multiple Northern Harriers quartered the fields.
A picnic in Peveto Woods; a Baton Rouge Audubon Sanctuary was a great place for late migrants, such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue Grosbeak and a handful of warblers: Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.
The adjacent beach held the common and regularly-occurring Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, along with the more uncommon Piping and Snowy Plovers, while the mixed tern and gull flocks contained all of the expected species, such as Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, Caspian, Royal and Forster’s Terns, as well as Gull-billed Tern and several Franklin’s Gulls hiding among the many Laughing.
Highlights of the trips had to be the stake-out Say’s Phoebe in a sports field, a picnic lunch in a quiet cemetery, a pelagic Harrier (why?) and a Hermit Thrush that we “chased” up a road in the marshes.
It was then off to the closing dinner for the 2019 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival; an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres and socializing- a very pleasant end to the week. It was then some morning birding before some of us drove and some of us took a plane back to our respective homes.
Here are a few more birds (and one reptile!) from the trip:
The morning began before first light at the Folk Art Center in Asheville. As our group drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway the conversation in the car held an exciting tone as we speculated what birds might be flying over the high passes of the Black Mountains this morning.
We arrived at Ridge Junction just before sunrise. Calls of Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Wood, and Hermit Thrush greeted us as we geared up for the day. A spectacular sunrise proceeded and then soon after, the birds began streaming over the ridge.
We found an oak tree alongside the parkway that was full of warblers including Black-and-White, Black-throated Blue, Tennessee and Cape May. Barred Owls called from either side of the parkway. We began to make our way up the state road towards Mount Mitchell. A Philadelphia Vireo appeared and perched in some cherry saplings allowing our group to get nice looks and photos. Many other warblers, mostly Tennessee and Bay-breasted passed over the road.
As we began to make our way back towards our cars a rush of activity and calling was heard above our heads in the tall Spruce trees dotting the ridge. As we turned our heads to the sky we saw the reason for the sudden cacophony, an adult Peregrine Falcon perched atop a spruce. It immediately soared over our heads and disappeared over the ridge. The songbirds quieted back down and returned to busily foraging for food.
About midmorning we drove a few miles down the Parkway to Balsam Gap. Many birds were still passing through, especially Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Swainson’s Thrush, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Tennessee Warblers. Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins called as they passed overhead, occasionally landing nearby in the top of a Buckeye.
Around noon we spread out our picnic lunch in the shade. As we were all eating, a pair of Red Crossbills landed on a snag above us and then proceeded to drop down to eye level and forage just 5 feet away from our picnic! They hung around for about 5 minutes giving all of us ample time to observe them and take photos. It was a spectacular way to end a great morning of fall birding in the Appalachians.