Saturday, January 31, 2009

Winter in the boreal forest

Manitoba in winter is not a place where a birder can see a lot of species in a day. However, I have always found the boreal forest to be a place of great magic with many secretive residents that, if they are feeling generous, would brighten any birder's day. I've enjoyed a few trips with friends into the boreal forest just east of Winnipeg recently and had some wonderful sightings. These photos were all taken in eastern Manitoba (mostly along Hwy 15 near Elma) in January 2009.

There are at least two Great Gray Owls along Hwy 15 this winter and both appear to be 3+ year old adults (lacking juvenile flight feathers). At least one is banded. This bird was actively hunting and offered the chance for some take-off shots:

Northern Hawk Owls have been more common than Great Grays this year. Such a thrill to be able to see four or five of them in a day, though not as many as three winters ago when I enjoyed seeing as many as 24 in one day. I haven't had many great photo ops this winter but here's a sampling:

Winter finches are an extraodinary burst of colour in the boreal winter. When it is <-30°C it always amazes me that birds can look as bright as these Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks (females first):

There have been a few flocks of White-winged Crossbill around this year and they are always a thrill to watch when you can find them. See if you can spot all seven crossbills in this photo.

This photo is cropped to show the feeding behaviour with the crossed mandibles.

I found the behaviour of this male Downy Woodpecker interesting, feeding on a gall just 30cm above the snow.

I have already been lucky enough to see both Black-backed Woodpecker and American Three-toed Woodpecker this year. Here's a look at a male Black-backed:

For more photos of boreal birds, you can alwys visit me at my website:

Shrike attack

This series shows how a Northern Shrike attacks a European Starling. A starling is a large prey item and their beak is potentially very dangerous to the shrike. This first-winter (1 year old) shrike was therefore taking a risk with this attack but was rewarded with a large meal.

This sequence is also viewable at the Manitobabirds page:

Colombia Street Parade

As part of the 3rd Cerulean Warbler Summit & 2nd Golden-winged Warbler Summit from October 21 – 25 2008 in Bogotá and San Vicente de Chucurí, Colombia, ProAves organised this amazing street parade in San Vicente de Chucurí.

Right on the lead banner were some birds from my "backyard" here in Canada (Olive-sided Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler and Cerulean Warbler). It felt as though these little birds, weighing just a few grams, were reminding us of just how connected we are. Their incredible migration, their "dual citizenship" was being celebrated here and, as conservationists, i think we all understood the importance of that message... that we needed to work as one in order to preserve both our homes - so diverse and yet so intricately connected...

It was truly a spectacle to see hundreds of kids dressed in Golden-winged Warbler and Cerulean Warbler costumes.

Of course, some just like to do things their own way!

costume or no costume, these kids were speaking our language: "Respect, protect our birds to ensure biological and cultural diveristy"... i love the idea of cultural diversity being protected alongside biological diversity!

big smiles in the scorching afternoon heat!

Local flare - a "chiva" is traditional means of transportation - a colourfully painted bus with wooden pews... adapted nicely for this parade

of course, kids always want their photo taken!

and they were genuinely interesetd in communication

Books and binoculars are a big hit

Exhausted but elated at the end of the day, we went to a local park to see a few birds and some of the kids borrowed my camera to take a few photos of me and each other

An extraodinary experience that instilled a lot of hope!


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Colombia - Stunner Hummers

There are approximately 150 species of hummingbirds in Colombia and they bare superb witness to some of the most extraordinary evolutionary partnerships between birds and plants. Before you read on, I recommend you find a very stable and comfortable chair and put a well-padded cushion on the ground behind said chair (are you sick of my purple prose yet?).

We start with a link back to a previous email – this shot shows a female Blue-tailed Emerald feeding from a hole at the base of a flower made by a flowerpiercer

This Wedge-billed Hummingbird is using the same trick, You can see the beautiful tail better and the bill shape square on in the photo on the left.

This Andean Emerald shows the polite way to do it – feeding from the open end of the flower and getting a good dusting of pollen on the forehead. Also note how vertically compressed and “sword-like” the bill is one several of these hummers when seen head on.

This White-bellied Woodstar further demonstrates typical feeding behaviour while hovering (even in bright light it is hard to stop those wings)

and the Steely-vented Hummingbird provides an acrobatic twist to this theme.

Next, two species of violetears. North Americans may be familiar with the Green Violetear on the left but maybe less familiar with the Sparkling Violetear on the right. The latter is the more common in Colombia and occurs in urban areas and seems to be one of only a few birds that benefits from introduced eucalyptus trees. The two species may look quite different in these close-ups but they are surprisingly difficult to separate in the field under normal lighting conditions. The violet ear patches can actually be “raised” in aggressive interactions.

The Shining Green Hummingbird completely deserves their name, lighting up the dry forest with a spark of iridescence.

The Buff-tailed Coronet appears all dark most of the time, until you catch the iridescence.

The Fawn-breasted Brilliant is a subtly plumaged hummer with a strong bill. The gorget is interesting – small and teardrop shaped – the insert shows its colour at the right angle.

The Speckled Hummingbird also chose subtlety in their evolution. You’d be forgiven for not realizing the bird staring me down in the photo is a hummer at all – the straight bill is actually not as short as it appears in this photo.

Another hummer that appears all dark is the Tourmaline Sunangel. But when the light is right the iridescent purple gorget and green “ruff” are distinctive.

Speaking of distinctive, the Collared Inca is immediately identifiable – and what a gem. You can just see a hint of the blue crown on this male. The plumage appears all black and white but actually has very dark green highlights. This one seems to be licking his chops as sweet nectar flows down his bill.

In addition to the Tawny Antpitta in a previous post, the foggy páramo opened its misty veil to give me a glimpse of another highly sought after mountain dweller, the Bearded Helmetcrest. Unfortunately in this photo the long beard and lost crest don’t show very well. This species is found from 3000 – 5200m. Even near the equator it is very cold in the treeless páramo and so helemtcrests, like other high elevation hummers, conserve energy by perching to feed, as shown here, rather than hovering, whenever possible. They also walk across matted grass to feed on insects.

Lower down in the cloud forest, the male Long-tailed Sylph shows off his stunning tail. Like the gorget of some hummers, his tail appears to be different colours at different angles – now green now blue. The dazzling iridescent crown is not often viewed to full effect. Their showy tails seem to be a lot of work because I saw many that were shorter and/or frayed.

Last but not least, the Sword-billed Hummingbird showing off their extraordinary bill. Notice how they almost always point their bill skyward to minimize the strain on their neck from this weighty appendage (even when perched). The partnership between the Sword-billed Hummingbird and the LONG flowers they feed on is a remarkable road of co-evolution (adaptation and counter-adaptation). Both pollinator and pollinated have presumably influenced each other’s development - a glimpse into the real meaning of commitment! Interestingly, the well-armed Sword-bill is a gentle spirit and, at Rio Blanco where they hang feeders, was often intimidated and scared away from the free sugar by much smaller, more aggressive hummers. In the world of hummingbirds it seems, speed is the greatest weapon!

You can see larger versions of these photos at:

Colombia - Sombre & Subtle

Ok, so “subtle and somber” isn’t exactly a colour either… maybe my colour theme idea wasn’t as solid as i first thought. Anyway, this is a chance to show off some species whose beauty is more subtle. Sometimes, we dismiss some of these are LBJs (little brown jobs) and don’t always pay them the attention they deserve. Yes, i’m guilty too but maybe this email will balance things out a little. I must be honest though, the birds shown here all have a lot of character.

We begin with, you guessed it, a tyrant flycatcher (family Tyrannidae), famous for subtle plumage and many almost unidentifiable species… and you wouldn’t be expecting a whole lot of colour from a bird called Mouse-coloured Tyrannulet, but still this denizen of the dry forest region near the Caribbean coast is very attractive.

The Pale-eyed Pygmy Tyrant shows a similar colour scheme but those huge pale eyes make them instantly identifiable.

The Torrent Tyrannulet calls fast-flowing Andean rivers home and has a soft grey, black and white plumage to match the boulders (not also the concealed crown patch found in many of this family).

Next, a bird that caused me some difficulty in identification. This Northern Scrub Flycatcher has a pattern that is extremely similar to some flycatchers in other genera such as Myiarchus.

Although difficult to see as they skulk in the undergrowth, Attila are an interesting genus of large Tyrant flycatchers with a hook on the tip of the upper mandible (hooks are a very useful tool) but otherwise such a big-eyed gentle expression that you wonder what they did to deserve to be called “Attila the Tyrant”. This one is an unusually cooperative Bright-rumped Attila, a species which i have seen in Mexico but never as well as this before (i hope their band code is not “BRAT”).

Sticking with the tyrants, the tiny Black-throated Tody-Tyrant is a delightful chubby little bird that really doesn’t deserve the name tyrant.

Speaking of tiny, how about this pair of Scaled Piculets - at only 8.5cm long they’re little more than half the size of a Downy Woodpecker but that doesn’t stop them from partaking of the time-honoured tree-whacking tradition! That’s the male on the left with the yellow crown. You’ll also notice they lack the pointed central tail feathers of most woodpeckers and are often seen “walking” underneath slender twigs. In northern South America, their persistent tapping on fence posts (looking for wood-boring bugs) with a syncopated rhythm has earned them the nickname of “telegrafistas”.

The Eared Dove is extremely common in Colombia even in urban areas and has an exceptional altitudinal range of 0 – 3500m. This species is in the same genus as Mourning Dove and White-winged Dove.

The next photo represents a moment of great excitement for me as my first view of a new family, the puffbirds. This is a Russet-throated Puffbird, a species which i thought i had missed in the dry forest near Santa Marta but then showed up at the last minute just outside town. The local nickname for puffbirds is “pájaro bobo” (“stupid bird”) for their habit of sitting still for long period of time and their supposed reluctance to fly away when approached. I took advantage of that fact to get this photo

This adorable Pied Puffbird was building their nest in a termite nest in the mangroves and periodically catching dragonflies – only my second puffbird and absolutely fascinating to watch.

The Three-striped Warbler is one of the many members of the genus Basileuterus. This genus is largely Neotropical with only a few species like Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warbler creeping their way north of the Tropic of Cancer. Most are yellow or yellowish and skulk in the understorey.

The Santa Marta Brush Finch is another of those Santa Marta endemic species. This one was kind enough to come feeding on moths under the lights outside the lodge at dawn allowing for a good photo op (brush finches are usually tough to photograph).

The ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow, like the Eared Dove has an extraordinary altitudinal range (~500m – 4000m) and is disturbance adapted, and found in urban areas as well as clearings in otherwise relatively intact forest. This species belongs to the genus Zonotrichia but unlike the 4 other member of this genus, all of which are Nearctic migrants, this one is strictly Neotropical.

The soft grey plumage of the Plumbeous Sierra Finch is catching but actually what i like most about this photo is the extraordinarily beautiful “mat” of vegetation over the rock this bird is perched on. The spacing between each plant seems so mathematically regular… like the prairies, the páramo has some subtle beauty!

Last in this series, one more tanager, this one with a soft blue-grey plumage, the Scrub Tanager.

More photos from Colombia are viewable on my website (

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