Sunday, October 24, 2010

The best birdathon in 8 years!

Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Pelican

By Oliver Komar (photos John van Dort)

Por versión español, haga click aqui

Friends, here is a quick summary of my team’s experience during the eighth birdathon in El Salvador, this past 16-17 October 2010. The weather was perfect for birding, and our luck was running very high, so much that our team identified 206 species during the two days in the south of Ahuachapán. We passed by far our previous team record of 192 species, made last year. This year, Roselvy Juárez, Benjamín Rivera, John van Dort and myself formed the team. The breezes were calm and comfortable, temperatures were not too high, and just a few rain drops fell during lunch on Sunday, all in all perfect conditions. In fact, birds were notably active. Even resident birds as well as some migrants were singing! Considering that the breeding season is well over, this was an unexpected bonus. Even the birds seemed to be happy and excited last weekend.

Double-striped Thick-knee

Day 1 

From our base at the El Imposible Ecolodge, we began Saturday at the La Hachadura Savannah, arriving there at 6:00 am. This site is very close to the Guatemala border, on the coastal plain. We walked and observed along a couple of kilometers of the road that runs to Garita Palmera from the town of La Hachadura (Municipality of San Francisco Menéndez). Although we missed two target species (Plain-breasted Ground-Dove and Eastern Meadowlark), we were rewarded with 17 Double-striped Thick-knees, 4 Wilson’s Snipe, 4 Solitary Sandpipers, 1 Killdeer, 1 Amazon Kingfisher (!) flying over towards Guatemala, 1 Crested Caracara, several species of swallows and in particular, 3 Purple Martins. Purple Martin has never before been reported in El Salvador! We saw two males together with one female. New species for our list appeared by the minute, and we had difficulty tearing ourselves away from this site. But at 7:45 am, we drove off towards Barra de Santiago, a trip that would take nearly an hour. 

At the entrance to the Barra, where the road crosses a small stream just before reaching the mangroves, we made a stop and walked among the shrubbery that lines the stream. In just 10 minutes, we added several species that we would not encounter again, including Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Grayish Saltator. We arrived at the office of AMBAS (The Barra de Santiago Women for Community Development Association) at 9:00 am. We had arranged previously with them for two park wardens, Alcides Pérez and Adonai, to accompany us by boat during the morning. While they finished preparing the boat, we grabbed a hot breakfast in the restaurant run by Rosa, the president of AMBAS. From the deck, we added Belted Kingfisher to the list.

Barra de Santiago

The tide was at its highest, and we easily crossed the estuary and made our way deep into the mangroves by 9:30 am. In these channels of the protected area, we managed to find most of the target species, including Mangrove Vireo, both wood-rail species, Boat-billed Heron, and Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Also the Lineated Woodpecker. Nonetheless, we missed two targets, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and American Pygmy Kingfisher. One surprise was a flock of migrant warblers that included three Black-and-white Warblers in full song! We left the channels a bit late, around 11:30 am, and 15 minutes later we arrived at the extensive sandflats in the mouth of the estuary. The tide was ebbing, and the great flats were just beginning to be uncovered. For us, it was perfect timing, because the nearly thousand shorebirds, terns, gulls and pelicans were concentrated in the upper flats, facilitating for us a rapid review of all of the birds.

Short-billed Dowitchers

We left the boat and walked barefoot across the sand and mud during just 45 minutes, but we added more than 20 species to the list. In addition to the common and expected species (like Short-billed Dowitcher), we were rewarded with 3 American Oystercatchers, a pair of Collared Plovers, and one Snowy Plover. We found only one Elegant Tern among the hundred-plus Royal Terns. When all of the shorebirds and terns took flight, frightened, a scan of the sky revealed a passing Merlin. But time was short, and we ran back to the boat to return as fast as possible to the AMBAS restaurant. Our original plan was to lunch there at 12:30, but we called ahead by cell phone to have lunch prepared for 1:00 pm.

We lunched with more than 100 species already listed, and there we added Blue-gray Tanager. We abandoned our plan to leave the Barra for Los Cóbanos, because we were already running 45 minutes behind schedule and then we lost more time changing a flat tire on my Pathfinder. Improvising, we asked if a local fisherman might be able to take us out to sea from the Barra (that was our reason for going to Los Cobanos). Within 15 minutes, Antonio, the chief warden, had found a boat and driver on the beach in front of the AMBAS office. He lent us life vests, and at 2:30 pm we were on the water, fighting the large waves to find a way out to sea.

Red-necked Phalaropes

The boat driver, known as Ricardo or by his nickname “El Tiburón” (the shark), agreed to take us out for 3 hours. First we visited three shrimp boats that were trawling the bottom just 2 km off the coast. We hoped to find boobies perched on the shrimp boats, but all we saw were Brown Pelicans, some gulls and terns, and Magnificent Frigatebirds. The next strategy was to cruise straight south, away from the coast and towards the open sea. Our first find was five Red-necked Phalaropes, and then we started to add pelagic species such as Pomarine Jaeger, Brown Noddy, Black Tern, and Black Storm-Petrel. We also saw several Green Sea Turtles. We got to about 15 km out and then turned around. We were pleased with the sea trip, and teased by several birds that got away, but looked to be very interesting species. At 5:30 pm, we had reached shore, and were admiring how the boatman found just the right moment to bring the boat to the beach, riding the back of an enormous wave.

With the last half hour of light, we rushed to the boardwalk at “El Picacho”, a part of the mangrove swamp at Barra de Santiago where herons nest. Although last year we found active nests of Anhinga during the birdathon, this time we did not see any Anhinga or heron nests. Nonetheless, we found many herons sleeping by the platform at the end of the boardwalk, and in the dusk we added to our list Black-crowned Night-Heron, Chuck-Will’s-Widow, Laughing Falcon, and Collared Forest-Falcon. We also saw more Boat-billed Herons, and we returned to the car with the flashlights on. 

Worried about arriving late for dinner, we decided to limit the evening stops to the tire repair workshop and the supermarket at Cara Sucia, without doing any owling. After all, we still had Sunday night. The tire repair workshops were already closed, so we decided to drive up the rough 14 km road to El Imposible with special care (read this as especially slowly). We dined somewhat late, around 8:00 pm. The list already had 123 species. It may sound like a lot, but it was less than we had last year by Saturday night. I thought we would have a tough time reaching last year’s record.

Day 2

We started Sunday morning at 4:45 am. We added Mottled Owl to the list before we left the Ecolodge. We left the car at El Imposible National Park’s visitor’s center, and found ourselves immersed in the forest, on our way down to the Izcanal River, by the beginning of the dawn chorus at 5:20 am. Playing tapes for Black-and-white Owl had been ineffective. During the next two hours we were surprised by the amount of birds we heard singing, since normally in mid-October few birds are vocalizing. The absence of wind perhaps helped. We heard songs of Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Bright-rumped Attila, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Long-billed Gnatwren, Paltry Tyrannulet, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and many more species that are common in this forest. As with the previous day, we heard the migratory Black-and-white Warbler singing. As we expected, a Louisiana Waterthrush coursed the river. Before 6:00 am, we saw several migrating raptors crossing the valley, boding well for a good migration day.

Pale-billed Woodpecker

On the other side of the river (600 meters above sea level), we began the long climb up to Cerro El Leon (at 1100 meters), and it was well worthwhile. On this trail, we found Pale-billed Woodpecker (thanks to Roselvy), Crested Guan, the regionally endemic Bar-winged Oriole, and several flocks of migrants. Unexpected was a Red-eyed Vireo and an Eye-ringed Flatbill. There were so many birds, that we got behind schedule again. I had wanted to reach the peak by 9:00 am in order to watch for hawks until 11:00. But we did not arrive until after 11:00. Near the peak, John photographed a Great Currassow, an impressive species that is so shy that we have never seen it before on a birdathon. 

Great Curassow

Although we spent only about 30 minutes on top of Cerro El Leon, we saw practically all we hoped to find there. The King Vulture and White Hawk graciously posed in trees and then flew out over the valleys that surround the peak. The White Hawk was found thanks to the keen eyes of Benjamin; it was barely visible by the naked eye where it was perched more than a kilometer across the valley. Black Hawk-Eagles whistled from below and above the peak. We saw distant streams of migrating hawks, distinguishing a couple of new species for our list. John picked out a distant Peregrine Falcon, and we never saw another one. We had planned to lunch at 1:00 pm at the Comedor de la Niña Hilda, at the park entrance, so we briskly hiked the ridge trail back to the visitor´s center, hoping to gain time. We stopped just a few times, but it was worthwhile. Roselvy brought our attention to a pair of Blue Seedeaters along the trail, and we saw Elegant Trogon. At El Mulo lookout, we added Short-tailed Hawk and Barred Antshrike. Back at the Visitor’s Center we added Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue-throated Goldentail, and Brown-crested Flycatcher, as well as witnessing an impressive flight of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks just over our heads and under the accumulating clouds that threatened rain. Over lunch we celebrated our new record, 193 species. It was 2:00 pm.

A stop at the El Imposible Ecolodge, to gather our bags, produced Lesser Ground-Cuckoo for the list. A stop further down the road, in El Refugio as we drove down towards the coast, produced Least Flycatcher, Rufous-collared Swift, White-browed Gnatcatcher, and Western Wood-Pewee, and in Cara Sucia John spotted a Red-billed Pigeon. We arrived at Santa Rita forest with 199 species. It was 4:30 pm, and we still had 90 minutes of light. We were surprised and disappointed to find, however, that the road that crosses this protected area was turned into a highway, with a constant stream of cars, trucks and buses. One of the September storms had washed out a bridge on the paved road that runs from Cara Sucia to Garita Palmera, and now most vehicles were detoured to this road. We walked along it, but the forest was strangely quiet. One of the birds that was most common here last year, the Rose-throated Becard, was nowhere to be seen (or heard) and we missed it for the birdathon. Nonetheless, we added Crested Bobwhite and White-bellied Chachalaca at the forest entrance, and inside the forest, Great Crested Flycatcher, Turqoise-browed Motmot, White-fronted Parrot and a late Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, that should have already departed for South America. The last species added was Lesser Nighthawk, as several overflew the observation tower around 5:45 pm.
We stayed at Santa Rita until nearly 6:30, listening for Spectacled Owl with no luck. With 206 species already recorded, and nearly 3 hours travel to San Salvador awaiting us, we decided to leave any more owling for another year. The weekend had been excellent for birding. We saw most of the target species and some surprises too. The sea trip was new for us, as we had never tried one on previous birdathons. It was worthwhile. We always miss a few common species, and this year was no exception. We never found Red-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Red-winged Blackbird or Blue-black Grassquit. But we recorded almost all of the El Imposible specialties (such as Crested Guan, Great Curassow, White Hawk, Blue Seedeater, and many more). Will it be possible to break our new record in the future?

our team on the beach at Barra de Santiago

We did the birdathon in part for the fun, but more so to support SalvaNATURA’s bird monitoring program. If you have not made your donation yet, please follow the instructions that appeared previously in the 2010 Birdathon blog, or write an email to John (john.vandort AT and he will send you instructions for donating on-line. If you have donated, thank you very much!

No comments:

Post a Comment