Uruguay uncovered

The rarest  bird we saw – Surucua Trogon. Only a couple of pairs breed on the Uruguayan side of the border with Brazil

We’ve spent the last ten days discovering the delights of Uruguay – its landscapes, birds and people. At 68,000 sq miles (England – 94,000 sq miles) it’s the second smallest country in South America, sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, with the great River Plate forming its western boundary, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. More than half the country’s total population of 3.5 million people live in the capital Montevideo, with the rest thinly distributed across the gentle rolling hilly grasslands, woods and coastal lowlands. With its relatively small bird list of 455, Uruguay wouldn’t be most people’s first-choice birding destination in South America (cf. Colombia – 1958, Peru – 1818 or Ecuador – 1634), but with relatively short distances to travel, good infrastructure and roads, a strong sense of personal safety and very hospitable people, it’s a great location for our style of ‘do it yourself’ birding holidays. Unsurprisingly, the birdlife reflects that of its neighbouring countries, with species from the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil in the north and pampas birds from Argentina to the south and west making up the bulk of the bird list. The 400 miles of coastline, dotted with marshes and coastal lagoons and innumerable inland ponds and lakes providing habitat for many interesting wetland and water birds.

We started our trip with a few days at the Wyndham Gardens hotel on the eastern edge of Montevideo, with its own lagoon and wooded park close by – a good place to get to grips with the commoner species. Our stay here also included a day trip to the protected wetland areas around Santiago Vazquez and the outstanding Colonia Wilson road. We then headed north-east to another protected area, that of Quebrada da los Cuervos – staying at the well-equipped eco-lodge of El Capricho, before continuing east to the Brazilian border at Paso del Centurion. This location has been pioneered by Laura and husband Francisco who, working with the local community, have found a number of new birds for Uruguay here – helping achieve ‘protected area’ designation – and laying the foundations of a sustainable community eco-tourism enterprise. Although our accommodation was pretty basic – it was essentially a ‘home stay’ – traditional food was provided by a kindly neighbour and Laura showed us around a number of private sites, with the permission of the land owners. This delightful and dedicated couple truly deserve to succeed in this significant Uruguayan conservation project. Our final stop was in the traditional beach-side holiday resort of La Paloma – combining birding with family holiday activities. So far, we’ve found and identified nearly 180 species, close on fifty being additions to my world list.

A somewhat random selection of our birds of Uruguay, beginning with the charming but common Saffron Finch – first seen on a work trip to Jamaica!

A reasonably common seedeater – this is Double-collared

More scarce and increasingly threatened, the Great Pampa-finch 

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One of the dazzling monjita family (I always thought that was a Cuban drink!) – this one is White

Other grassland species included Savannah Hawk

Guira Cuckoo

The smallest of the tinamou family, at just 20cm – Spotted 

by contrast, Greater Rhea – measuring 1.8m in its ‘stockinged feet’!

and the always-endearing Burrowing Owl

Around the El Capricho eco-lodge several woodland-edge species. This is Tropical Parula – last seen in Texas on our Great American Birding RoAd Trip

This is Golden-crowned Warbler – hiding in deep cover

and the much more showy Red-crested Cardinal

The numerous inland ponds and coastal lagoons provided habitat for many interesting water birds. This Plumbeous Ibis had just caught an eel

Rufescent Tiger-heron – last observed at Regua – Brazil

Whistling Heron, perhaps the most lovely of them all

Courtesy of Laura and Francisco we got excellent views of Chotoy Spinetail

Rufous-capped Antshrike

Bran-coloured Flycatcher

and Freckle-breasted Thornbird

Other birds, found only around Paso del Centurion, included this Large-tailed Antshrike

the giant though elusive Planalto Woodcreeper

and White-winged Becard, which just has a toehold in Uruguay

The coastline of Uruguay provided plenty of interest too – this is Collared Plover at Laguna La Rocha

In the harbour at La Paloma – Snowy-crowned Tern

At La Barra, a very confiding Striated Heron

Whilst absorbing the detail of Cayenne Tern (South American Sandwich Tern) we noticed another tern (top right in the photo) – subtly different – could this possibly be an Elegant Tern? Any comments on id welcome. Now shown with inset of Royal Tern, taken at same location, for comparison

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..and then this evening, we were just enjoying a beer at the beach bar when Joe called (in jest) ‘frigatebird’. I took a look through the binoculars and sure enough… an immature Magnificent Frigatebird!!

We fly back to Santiago on Saturday and then, after a couple of days R&R, we return to the UK – a different place from the one we left just after Christmas, in more ways than one. But we’ll take with us very fond memories of our first birding trip to Uruguay.

 

 

 

 

Chile chilling

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover – El Yeso valley

We’ve been in Chile with Joe, Gabi & Blas for a week now, chilling. A long weekend at the coast included a boat ride and a visit to the local animal rescue centre / petting zoo – great views of Emu! As a consequence our Chile 2020 list has got off to a relatively slow start, but we have now been up to the ski resorts above Santiago and, yesterday, I spent the day with ‘Gresham Phil’ (Phil & Carolyn have been out here on a 16 day birding tour with Eric of Albatros Birding) in the El Yeso valley. As always the target bird was the beautiful but elusive and globally rare Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. We had to try four spots up the valley before we finally pinned down a pair with their two chicks. I spotted the first adult hunkered down in the river- bed and we watched it and the youngsters at a respectful distance. Walking back we were within a couple of minutes of the car when Eric nearly trod on the second bird, busy bathing and preening in the stream. Remaining completely unbothered by our presence, we got utterly amazing views! This is our third consecutive trip to Chile when we’ve been successful in locating this ‘must get’ species.

Doing the numbers – Australia

South Island Pied Oystercatcher – showing straighter, longer bill & shorter legs

Once the packing was finished on Wednesday we did manage to squeeze in a couple of hours local birding, taking a trip to the beach – Stockton Beach or to give its proper name, Worimi Conservation Land. We were looking for one last tick – South Island Pied Oystercatcher – a very rare visitor from New Zealand. But with nearly 40k of shoreline to cover (the beach forms part of the largest sand-dune system in the Southern Hemisphere!) it’s a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. However the bird in question is ringed and flagged – a process which was carried out sometime previously in Victoria. Unfortunately the bird was incorrectly identified at the time as a regular Australian Pied Oystercatcher. Only later was the mistake discovered but having the unintended consequence of making the process of finding this rare visitor somewhat easier. As luck would have it we located the bird in the first group of oystercatchers we found and only a few k’s along the beach.

Taking this new Aussie tick into consideration the respective lists look like this:

Trip List – 299, with the mystery shelduck at Werribee pending (see update below)

Australian List – 541, with the above possible addition, and

Hunter Bird Observers Club List – 322

Aleutian is no illusion

Aleutian Tern – undisputed high-light of this 2019/2020 Australia trip

For the final birding excursion of our current Australia trip we decided to head back to the tern roost near Old Bar, two hours north of Newcastle. Missing the Roseate Tern on our previous visit was disappointing – it would have provided a good Hunter ‘tick’ – although I have seen them in Australia before. But the really crushing blow was to miss-out on seeing the small group of wintering Aleutian Tern – only discovered here in 2017. These highly pelagic birds, more closely related to Bridled & Sooty Tern than to the nearest confusable species Common Tern (Australian race), breed in colonies on coasts and islands in Alaska and easternmost Siberia, including the Aleutian Islands. They are long-distant migrants, wintering in Australasia and Oceania. Incredibly one wandering bird was seen on the Farne Islands in 1979 – the only Western Palearctic record.

It was 37 degrees as we headed up the beach towards the roost. The tide was low and there were perhaps a hundred mixed terns on the sand-bar when we arrived. The only other observer had been there for a couple of hours but seen nothing of particular interest. Soon after we’d started scanning we picked up an unusual looking bird bathing and preening. It seemed to have some of the characteristics we were looking for but it wasn’t ‘a classic’ and it soon departed – we let it go. After another hour a bird flew in to join the couple of Common Tern that were already present – this bird looked very promising. A careful check of the id features (white of the fore-head reaching behind the eye, brownish cap, dark trailing edge to the inner under-wing, dagger-like bill profile, pale fringes to the tertials, etc) confirmed that it was indeed an Aleutian Tern! Photos of the original bird seem to confirm its identity as well. Numbers at this site have dropped significantly this year (down from nearly twenty in 2018/19), so I count myself doubly fortune to have seen them at all – who knows how long these ocean wanderers will continue to vacation along this stretch of the NSW coast?

Another shot showing crucial under-wing pattern

Postscript: In order to obtain these photos I had to wade across the inlet which separated me from the birds, in the process of doing so I forgot my iPhone was in my shorts pocket. Oddly enough it didn’t work too well after that. You can’t put a price on a good tern photo!

Mt Lewis and the Atherton Tablelands

Record shot of Blue-faced Parrot-finch – the ‘must see’ species on Mt Lewis

Taking a break from the pool, crazy golf, pedal-cars etc we did manage a days birding during our recent family holiday in Cairns. We were up before 4.00am to drive the two hours inland to arrive at Mt Lewis for dawn. As anyone will know, it’s the first hour or so after day-break when birding in tropical rainforests is at it’s best. We drove the 10k track to the top of the mountain in the gloom, with tantalising glimpses of bird silhouettes all along the road and snatches of bird-song coming through the open windows. As dawn broke we stood in a forest clearing, taking in the atmosphere and the birds. Amazingly, our most sort-after species was amongst the first we saw – a single Blue-faced Parrot-finch, was quietly feeding in the seeding grasses right in front of us. It disappeared as quickly as it arrived and it was another hour and a half before we got a second view. Other rain-forest specialities were collected along the track, including noisy Chowchilla, Mountain Thornbill, Atherton Scrubwren, Fern Wren & Bower’s Shrike-thrush. Photography in these circumstances proving challenging, to say the least. We descended the mountain – ‘ticking up’ Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher on the way – to bird the Tablelands. By mid-morning the temperature was in the mid-thirties and birding became increasingly difficult. We failed on Squatter Pigeon but did eventually get good views of several Australian Bustard. The remains of the day were spent at various coastal locations, finishing at the mouth of the Barron River with that Lesser Crested Tern.

A few more photos from Mt Lewis – record shot of lekking Chowchilla to start

Mountain Thornbill – restricted to upland tropical rainforest

Another range-restricted species – Atherton Scrubwren

Bower’s Shrike-thrush

One of several Australian Bustard seen

Dusk at the mouth of the River Barron, after 12 hours birding the Tablelands

Cassowary Country

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Southern Cassowary – one of five seen at Etty Bay

I don’t recall looking for Cassowary on our first visit to Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands – we certainly didn’t see one. On our last visit, in 2017, we spent two days missing them around Mission Beach, before finally tracking one down in the carpark of Jindalbah, north of the Daintree River. This trip, with three expectant grand-kids in tow, the pressure was on to find them. Two visits to the current hotspot around Cassowary House, Kuranda, and a return visit to Jindalbah had failed to produce the goods, so yesterday we made a last-ditch attempt to find this magnificent but surprisingly elusive species. This time the chosen location was Etty Bay, another hotspot, an hours drive south of Cairns. To be perfectly honest I thought our chances were slim but we’d hardly passed the ‘Caution Cassowary Crossing’ signs when we encountered our first, wandering nonchalantly along the road. In total, we saw five individuals in the space of half an hour. Even at this prized location we know of some birders who have spent all day looking, without success. How can such a large and, in parts, brightly coloured bird, prove so tricky to find?

One good tern deserves another

Lesser Crested Tern – at last. A world tick

I interrupt our family holiday at Coconut Resort, Cairns, to bring you a report of yet another tern addition to my Aussie list. We spent the day birding Mt Lewis and the Atherton Tablelands (separate report to follow), finishing at the mouth of the Barron River. There was a reasonable selection of waders, Eastern Reef Heron and a few terns blogging off-shore. Most were Little, with a couple of Caspian, but one stood out as being different from the main species present – Crested Tern. Slightly smaller, slimmer and paler, with a tangerine-coloured bill – Lesser Crested Tern. A trip, Aussie and world ‘tick’.