Monday, March 31, 2008

Northern Fulmar - New to Ohio!

This bird is just too exciting to tarry about with endless blathering build-ups - we'll cut to the chase. A Northern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis, was discovered today at Alum Creek Reservoir in central Ohio. While not entirely unexpected, this is a new species for the state, and certainly the best find of the year, possibly even longer.

The fulmar was discovered near the dam, out on the largest part of this massive, sprawling lake. It was found by a visiting birder from Queens, NY, Al. B. Trossle, who is quite familiar with the species from his work as a seabird counter in Atlantic waters off the coast of Delaware. Al reports that "I was white-faced with shock when I saw the bird. Being that this is Ohio, I knew it had to be a wolloping doozy".

Alum Creek State Park ranger Gil O'Motte reports that the throngs of birders have already begun, as is to be expected with the find of a major rarity these days. Said Gil "I mean, we see birds around here all the time. Can't understand the fuss - the thing looks just like a seagull. But, if you must visit, I'd head to the top of the dam and watch from there, like all the rest of the twitching nutters. If I had my way, we'd start charging all of them a fea to come see it".

Map of Alum Creek Lake. One of the largest man-made water bodies in interior North America, and too big to fit on a normal-scale map. This depicts the part of the lake that could reasonably be shown on a regular map. At its widest spot, Alum Creek stretches some 26 miles from shore to shore.

Fishing trawler working deep waters off the Alum Creek beach. The presence of a large commercial fishing operation here undoubtedly has contributed to the presence of Northern Fulmar, and other rarities. As the lake is large enough that it isn't cost-effective for the boats to return to port each evening, they often stay out for several days. The trawler crews clean and process their catches of round goby, smelt, and paddlefish at sea, throwing unwanted fishy debris overboard. The fish guts - chum, in birder parlance - attracts mobs of gulls, and sometimes seabirds like the Northern Fulmar.

Noted seabird authority Peter Harrison has already been consulted about this find. Mr. Harrison, author of Seabirds: An Identification Guide, states "This really doesn't surprise me. Fulmars, even though in the Procellariidae family along with petrels, are very gull-like. They've probably been regular visitors to Alum Creek for some time, and merely overlooked. I've seen the photos of this bird, and there's no doubt what it is. This could herald many other exciting finds at Alum Creek Lake".

This is the actual fishing boat that the fulmar has been following, and the bird is actually among the swarms of gulls in this photo. Irish pelagic bird authority Terry O'Droma took this photo from the deck of another ship, and added "Once I heard of this find, I rushed to the lake as fast as possible. This is one of the most exciting seabird finds in recent times. It absolutely supports my theory of the New Jersey/Meso-American Trench as a major conduit for Atlantic seabird dispersal into new territory. Over long periods of time, this waterway is what has paved the way for evolution of new seabirds species." Abundant credit must be given to Terry for enduring the angry waters of Alum Creek Lake to document the fulmar, and obtain this utterly amazing series of photos. Bundled for the cold, the black-capped O' Droma, wearing his mottled pea-coat, was thoroughly pink-footed with cold by the time he returned to shore.

This map of North America depicts the now famous New Jersey/Meso-American Trench, the likely avenue of dispersal of seabirds into interior North America, a theory first put forth by Dr. Terry O'Droma and enthusiastically supported by Peter Harrison, Roger Tory Peterson, and Bill Thompson III, among many others. This trench, which runs a sinuous course from Trenton to the Central American country of Honduras, follows a roughly southwest path. Formed by glacial scouring during the last ice age, it is a shallow and intermittently flooded narrow valley that is sometimes easy to miss. Its path runs right through central Ohio and the village of Cheshire, hard on the eastern shores of Alum Creek Lake. The NJMAT, as it is known among oceanographers, is not nearly as well known in the corn belt as it is along the eastern seaboard, where its channel is broader and more conspicuous and attracts an astonishing array of waterbirds. New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, after observing the rushing waters of the Trench at high tide, was inspired to write his mega-hit, Born to Run

Finally, here is concrete documentation of our bird, the Northern Fulmar, on the wing over Alum Creek. Note the mostly dark upper wings, with only light flashes at the bases of the primary flight feathers, and the strongly contrasting white head. With a good look, you'll notice the gull-like yellowish bill with the "tube nose" that characterizes petrels. We are doubly fortunate in that when Dr. O' Droma snapped this documentary photo, a diagnostic landmark of the Alum Creek shoreline is faintly evident in the background, leaving no question as to where the photo was taken.

This is Cheshire Lighthouse North, one of the navigational beacons that dot the shoreline of Alum Creek Lake, and can be seen faintly in the background of O' Droma's fulmar photos. Because of its large size and relatively shallow waters, this lake has the reputation as one of the most dangerous water bodies in the midwestern United States. Hundreds of ships - schooners, trawlers, motor yachts, and even canoes - went down to visit Davey Jones's locker in the days before the lighthouses. The lighthouse above is also a great place to watch for the Northern Fulmar, as many of the sightings have been made from this point. Just drive north along Africa Road, and as you draw near the village of Cheshire, watch off to your left for the lighthouse.

This is a fantastic sighting, and one that every Ohio birder will want to add to their list, so I'd advise getting to Alum Creek ASAP. Hard to say if or when we'll get our next fulmar.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Seeing any species of wild cat is always a thrill. Just about all of them, at least in the Americas, are uncommon and very secretive. Wild cats are among the hardest of the large mammals to observe.

Thus, it was exciting to get a beautiful photograph of a Bobcat, Lynx rufus, sent to me by Laura Stalder. Laura captured it on film over in Monroe County in the fall of 2006. Monroe County, in extreme eastern Ohio, probably is near the center of Bobcat abundance in Ohio, as most of them are found in the hilly unglaciated southeastern region of the state.

One of the best shots I've seen of a wild Ohio Bobcat. These are not large animals; they average about 36 inches long and a big one would be 30 pounds. Larger house cats, especially brown or silver forms of cats like Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest Cats, can be mistaken for them and sometimes are. That's why it's great to get absolutely convincing documentation like Laura's photo.

Bobcats nearly disappeared from Ohio in the early to mid 1900's. I don't have Gottschang's Mammals of Ohio at hand to consult, which was published in 1981, but it seems I recall he either listed Bobcat as extirpated or very rare. With the massive deforestation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this mammal had become a rarity indeed.

As the forests on eastern and southern Ohio have matured, Bobcat habitat has gotten steadily better and reports of these little cats have been on the upswing.

A chart, courtesy of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, showing the steady upsurge in records of Bobcats over the past decade. In 2005, there were 65 unverified reports, and 20 confirmed sightings. The following year, 2006, unverified sightings spiked to 134, and confirmed sightings numbered 37. We can add Laura's record to the pool. I personally don't feel that this increase in numbers reflects more sophisticated observers afield and actively searching out Bobcats. Finding one of these wild cats always ranks among the more serendipitous of Ohio mammals sightings, and unless one is actively tracking dens or using squeal calls or some sort of lure, you've just got to be lucky.

I think there has just been a steady increase in Ohio's Bobcat population, and as there are more of them to be seen, more people are seeing them.

Here is a map showing the Ohio distribution of Bobcats, based on modern reports. This map also courtesy the Ohio Division of Wildlife. So, keep your eyes peeled, and if you stumble into a Bobcat, or know of any recent records, please let me know. And thanks to Laura Stalder for sharing her wonderful photo - great work!

Monday, March 24, 2008

OOS Annual Conference

The earth is really putting forth the vibes of spring right now. It's great to walk out early in the morning, and hear a symphony of American Robins, Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, and Song Sparrows in full song. The longer days are stimulating these early birds to fire up the old vocal tracks, and begin the melodies of spring. From here on out, it'll be an ever-increasing cascade of birds and song, peaking in May, when both migrant and resident birds are at their peak in Ohio.

And that's when we're holding the 4th annual conference of the Ohio Ornithological Society - May 16-18 - a good time to find migrants AND enjoy all our breeders, too. The place is Mohican State Forest, which is one of the richest Ohio woodlands for breeding bird diversity, including a number of rarities.

We're especially glad to have three stellar speakers for the weekend, starting off with Dana Bollin, who is naturalist at Maumee Bay State Park and a long-time birder, and OOS board member. You can read more about Dana and other conference details right here.

The inimitable Bill Thompson III is also on the slate. Bill is one of the best known figures on the North American birding scene, in part because he is editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, but also because he is a prolific author and speaker. Bill's newest book is hot off the presses - The Young Birders Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Bill is a leading proponent of getting more young people involved in birding and conservation, and puts his money where his mouth is. This is also an important initiative of the OOS, and Bill's help has been invaluable to us on this front. The book is beautifully illustrated by Bill's better half, Julie Zickefoose.

Bill's talk is titled No Child Left Inside, about his efforts to encourage youth participation in birding and outdoor pursuits. As anyone who has heard Bill speaks knows, this'll be a great program.

We are very excited to have Dudley Edmondson as our Saturday evening keynote speaker, all the way from Duluth, Minnesota. It'll be like a homecoming for Dudley, as he used to live in Columbus, Ohio. Dudley is an outstanding wildlife photographer who travels the country far and wide in search of subjects for his lens. His talk will focus on a recent visit to the tundra around Nome, Alaska, where the birds are nothing short of outrageous during the Arctic summer.

Dudley is also very active in encouraging minority particpation in outdoor activities like birding, and like Bill, puts his thoughts into action. The Black & Brown Faces in America's Wild Places is the culmination of four years of travel and interviews with African American people around the country, who are actively involved in outdoor pursuits. In Dudley's own words: "The combined subjects of the outdoors and people of color is rare but I am very passionate about both so I found it necessary to write and photograph this book in the hopes of making nature a topic of dicussion among African Americans".

If only there were more voices like Bill and Dudley, I think bird conservation would be much further along, and birding would be far more popular than it is. I hope you can make our conference, and hear and meet Bill, Dudley, and Dana. For all of the info and registration material, click right here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A bit more on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

For some reason, the Blogger gods are preventing me from reading or posting to my own comments. All comments made to my blog do come to me as e-mails, though, so I do see them.

For a tiny but interesting glimpse into the emotions that swirl around the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, often veering off into personal politics and a thorough abandonment of any scientific method, take a look at the two comments posted to my Pale-billed Woodpecker post by someone who chooses to remain anonymous.

Several of the issues that serve to discredit some - not all, just some - rabid pro Ivory-billed believers come out in those comments.

He/her states "Links below TO A FRACTION of the material and reports out there but appartently [sic] all completly [sic] missed." She/he then goes on to give links to Geoff Hill's page on the search for Ivory-billeds in Florida. These pages are rich in circumstantial evidence, both poor videos and sound recordings, none of which can be unequivocally proven to be of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. In fact, in my opinion, I would say that the video material is certainly not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and that probably none of the audio recordings of "kent" calls and double-rap knocks are, either. Geoff Hill, constructor of these web pages and a principle searcher in the swamps of Florida, states himself on the website:

Not Proof

Although members of our search group are convinced that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in the swamp forests along the Choctawhatchee River, we readily concede that the evidence we have amassed to date falls short of definitive. Definitive evidence will come in the form of a clear, indisputable film, digital image, or video image of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker or perhaps from a fresh feather or DNA sample. No such indisputable evidence has been gathered since photographic images of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were made in the Singer Tract of Louisiana in the 1930s.While we do not present our evidence as proof, we feel that the evidence that we have amassed is compelling and warrants a substantial follow-up effort.

I certainly applaud Geoff and Dan Mennill, and everyone else involved, for making extreme efforts to attempt to verify the existence of a bird widely thought to be extinct. They and others who share their data also deserve major kudos for sharing their findings, so that other ornithologists and interested parties can draw their own conclusions from the data. And I'd repeat, this is a case where all of us doubters would dearly love to be proven wrong.

For a surprisingly balanced synopsis of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, go here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ivory-billed's little brother

I think everyone wants the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers to exist, in spite of growing suspicions that the entire, I don't want to call it debacle, but.., was perhaps based on faulty evidence. Certainly no indisputable and compelling concrete evidence has yet been produced, and that's what it's going to take to convince the non-faith-based ornithological community.

My experiences with the tropical Pale-billed Woodpecker in recent years have caused me to wonder about our Ivory-billed Woodpecker situation all the more. Pale-billed is a big woodpecker in the genus Campephilus, same genus as the I-B. And just as the I-B must have been, Pale-billed Woodpeckers are large, extraordinarily showy, and often quite obvious birds.

In the past three years, in Costa Rica and Guatemala, I've seen many Pale-billeds and heard many more. That's the key - heard - that makes me more doubtful about the continued existence of I-B's in our southern swamps. The woodpeckers in the genus Campephilus, like I-B and Pale-billed, make an astonishing loud double rap knock as a way of communicating. These knocks, made by smartly rapping a tree twice in rapid succession, carries a very far distance, especially if the bird telegraphs it from a suitably acoustic substrate. There have been times where I have heard Pale-billeds do this quite clearly, and they were probably a good quarter-mile off, maybe further. The raps carry very well through the forest, are often repeated with some frequency, and are hard to miss. We've found Pale-billeds on a number of occasions by tracing the knocks to their source.

It's hard to imagine that the I-B lost the ability to double rap. If not, someone should be hearing this non-vocal call, and making good recordings. And probably finding the woodpeckers. Most of the old literature I've seen on I-B describes them as rather tame and obvious, and prone to producing double-raps, and that describes the behavior of their close relative the Pale-billed Woodpecker to a T.

Pale-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus guatemalensis, seen in the Peten region of Guatemala, March 2008. Our group of about 25-30 people was able to approach the bird quite closely, and those with larger lens got much more stunning photos. I think we could have gone much closer without causing undue disturbance, but didn't want to risk spooking the woodpecker. Besides, through the scopes we had absolutely killer looks. These big woodpeckers are real show-stoppers!

Cropped in closer. This is the male, the female has the front of the crest black. Look carefully; he is wrestling with a massive grub, probably of some sort of beetle. It is every bit as big as one of the mandibles of the woodpecker's bill, and he spent several minutes trying to choke this thing down. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker subsisted primarily on similar large beetle larvae.

A bit later, the female came down the tree to join its mate. We probably got to watch these magnificent birds for ten minutes or so, finally leaving them be and still working this tree. I will admit these photos are not fantastic, especially taken as they were in the very early morning hours in a foggy and damp Guatemalan jungle. If only someone could produce their own poor photos of the ever-elusive Ivory-billeds...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Night of the Tiger

This is about the only time of year I really look forward to rain, along with all of the other salamander enthusiasts. Just like these low-slung amphibians, we emerge on the first warm, rainy nights of early spring and patrol vernal pools, damp woodlands, and slowly cruise back roads in suitable habitat.

The first warm rainy nights around this time of year stimulate mole salamanders - genus Ambystoma - to emerge from underground haunts and march overland to favored breeding pools, just as they've done for eons. If you've never sought mole salamanders, it really is quite interesting. I was out last night, until about 1 am or so, and while I don't think the big emergence has yet come, at least where I was, there was certainly no shortage of action among the amphibians.

There is an area over in Logan County that is pocked with gorgeous glacial lakes, as well as prairie and fen remnants. I've known and been interested in this region for a long time, and have spent much time botanizing over that way. It is also Tiger Salamander country, and that was the main target of my search last night. Tigers are the largest mole salamander, and can reach over a foot in length. They are more of an open country beast than most of the others, and I think their distribution here corresponds in large part to the former prairie regions of the state. Prairie areas are where they should be sought.

I wasn't even to what I thought would be the best place to start looking for salamanders, when there it appeared on the road ahead. A mammoth Tiger Salamander, waddling across the road looking like a mini Komodo Dragon! This one was nearly a foot long, and I quickly jumped out to admire him. I took numerous other photos, but few came out and I have to apologize for that. Conditions were rather tough last night, with a good wind and steady, often driving rain, which made photography conditions less than ideal. After checking this dude out, I made sure to put him in the grass on the side of the road to which he was headed. Amphibian mortality on roads is staggering, especially for slow-movers like salamanders. It turned out this was the only Ambystoma tigrinum I saw that night - alive. I went on to find two more, but both were very fresh road kills.

Here's the range map of Tiger Salamander, courtesy of the website. This shows a classic pattern shared by a number of other animals, and many plants. Ohio represents the eastward limits of distribution for many western prairie species, and researchers searching for Tiger Salamanders and other species with prairie affinities would do well to acquaint themselves with the former prairie regions of Ohio, as that's where relict populations are still likely to lurk.

I also came across this Small-mouth Salamander, Ambystoma texanum. This is one of the more common and widespread of the Ohio mole salamanders. They have an interesting gait. When walking, it brings its rear foot forward to nearly the middle of its body, while simultaneously bring the front foot on the same side back just as far. This creates a rather comical waddling shuffle, involving much arching of the body and side to side movement.

The early spring chorusing of frogs always means winter is unleashing its grip on Ohio, and hearing scores of these Spring Peepers, Pseudacris crucifer, last night was welcome. I saw far more than I heard, though - in places, the roads were alive with them. I estimated I saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 500-700 last night. They were really on the move. All of the tiny tree frogs that I had a good look at on the roads were this species, although I also heard a number of Western Chorus Frogs, Pseudacris triseriata. The specific epithet crucifer means cross, and this frog is so named for that cross-shaped pattern on the back.

A gorgeous Northern Leopard Frog, Lithobates pipiens. This was the second most common frog on the roads last night, and I must have seen a hundred or more. Frogs behave quite differently at night in regards to their reactions to us, and can be approached and admired quite closely. Unfortunately, this also means they are very vulnerable to being hit by vehicles, and I saw many, many road killed leopards last night.

We're in for another spell of frigid nights, but when that breaks and we get the next warm, wet night, there should be some more salamander action.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Birding the Temples of Tikal

An interesting twist of birding Guatemalan is the fascinating culture. The Department of Peten, in the northern reaches of the country, was a center of Mayan life, and the temples at Tikal are among the most spectacular of the surviving relicts of Mayan cities. Many tourists come here to marvel at the awe-inspiring structures that typified this advanced civiliation, and so did we. The temples at Tikal were built well some 2,000 years ago, and remarkably, the Mayans did not count the wheel among their tools when they built the temples. The largest, Temple IV, is over 20 stories tall and juts high above the tallest jungle trees.

But there is far more to see at Tikal than the temples, other buildings, and steles, although these certainly dominate the landscape. The birds are incredible! Nowhere have I seen so many parrots, toucans, and aracaris, among many others. As Tikal is sacred, and quite well protected by the Guatemalan government, poachers are not part of the scene and the bird life is safe. And they seem to know it. The minute you step foot in the parking lot, an acoustic bombardment of raucous parrot calls begins, and they are seemingly everywhere.

Temple 1, overlooking the Gran Plaza, as seen from near the summit of the nearly identical Temple 2. These structures, as impressive as they are, are dwarfed by Temple IV, which rises to 212 feet. Unfortunately for the visitor, this temple was undergoing some rehabilitation work and was cloaked in unsightly scaffolding.
Being the birders that we are, birds preempted the temples at times, and we probably gave more than a few tourists pause as we scoped out interesting birds in the busy central plaza. Not that we didn't appreciate the Mayan craftwork, mind you, it's just that there were some marvelous birds to be seen.

One of the heavy-hitters to be found at Tikal: Orange-breasted Falcon. These peregrine-sized tropical falcons nest high on one of the large temples, and are easily found around the main plaza. This is the female, who was constantly exhorting the hapless male to bring her more food. Excellent views of the falcons could be had from the top of Temple II, and we were able to show many a bird-illiterate tourist these very exciting birds through the scopes.

Here's some of our crew from the 4th International Bird Watching Encounter posing high on Temple II: Front, kneeling: Brian Bland, Jeff Bouton, Sharon Mackie. Back row, L to R: Tim Appleton, Jeff Gordon, Liz Gordon, Bill Thompson, Lisa White, Jim McCormac, Susumu Kumemura, and Terry Moore. This is the spot where we had the best looks at the Orange-breasted Falcons.

Sensational and unwary, Ocellated Turkeys can't be missed at Tikal. They are gaudy to the point of outrageousness, more so than Ohio's Wild Turkey, also in the genus Meleagris.

I greatly enjoyed watching the goings-on at this colony of Montezuma's Oropendolas, which was high in a tree overlooking the central plaza at Tikal. Like a small colony of avian Mayans, the birds engaged in all of the activities of a busy little city. Oropendolas busied themselves constructing or patching their intricate woven bag-like nests, seemingly talked and socialized amongst themselves, and uttered their incredible descending gurgles - a sound that totally seems as one with the jungle. Especially interesting was watching one of the crow-sized males doing his courtship acrobatics. The bird perches on an unobstructed horizontal branch - keep in mind this is some 80 feet above the ground - and slyly looks about to see if any suitable chicks are watching. When an attractive audience is assured, he jostles about on the perch, and lets loose with a splendid flute-like gurgling whistle. Simultaneously, the bird rocks forward with a slight outward flap of the wings, and plunges off the branch headfirst. Like a trapeze artist, he maintains a firm grip on the branch and quickly pirhouettes halfway around before lunging back to an erect position. All the while, his golden tail flashes a vivid arc as he spins around. Indeed, "oropendola" stems from the Spanish Oro (gold) and pendola (pendulum).

Watching the antics of the orpoendolas, I had to wonder if the Mayans who lived here were equally amused by these birds living high overhead their ancient city some 2,000 year prior.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Steve and the monkey

One of the great things about my recent Guatemala trip was the people. A veritable who's who of British, Guatemalan, and North American birders, and it was great to meet so many new friends, and get to spend time afield with them. I want to share more about them in later posts, but for now I'll mention THE MAN of Central American birds.

I was thrilled to see that Steve Howell was along, and never expected the opportunity to meet him, or spend time in the field with Steve and be able to discuss birds and the tropics with him.

Steve is author of the benchmark Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, the gold standard reference of birds of this region. Steve made his first visit to Mexico in 1981, and since then has spent countless hours in that country as well as all of the Central American countries. No one knows the region's bird life like Steve, and he generously shares his knowledge. The above book was published in 1995, and provided the first comprehensive reference of the area's avifauna. When Steve began his field research, nearly nothing had been published on many of the species in Mexico/Central America. We were treated to a talk that Steve gave regarding his time in the tropics and what went into the research and travels for the book. Pretty amazing stuff, and not too many people would make the sacrifices that he did to learn about these birds.
Perhaps the most conspicuous - and horrifying, to the unitiated - vocalization in the jungles are the roars of howler monkeys. They travel in sizeable troupes, and the bellowing of the males can carry nearly a mile sometimes. Ofttentimes nearby troupes get to howling back and forth at each other, filling the forest with waves of raucous sound. Essentially, the howlers sound like a pack of coon dogs locked in a one-car garage and set to baying, and then projected through a stack of Marshall amps.

Fortunately, the young female above was silent and well-behaved, and quite tame. She would visit the grounds of the Vista Maya lodge, where we spent a few days, and amble over to investigate the activities of the humanoids. Quite a charming little monkey, actually. And apparently quite keen on learning about birds. And she picked the right group of people to learn from.

We noticed that the monkey was having difficulty separating the various species of tanagers and warblers flitting about the grounds, and remembered that we had Steve Howell close at hand. Obliging chap that he is, Steve brought over one of his guides and spent a bit of time tutoring the monkey on various ID issues. The monkey was enriched, Steve did a good deed, and we had some nice photo ops of teacher and student. Hard to say who's the better looking of the two, though...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Army Ants

On a recent jungle trek into Guatemalan jungles, the cry went up: "Army Ants!!!". And this was met with glee, as for birders, stumbling across massive columns of these voracious but Lilliputian warriors can mean only good things. The ants have been over-dramatized and probably vilified to some degree, with tales of them devouring people and anything else in their path.

While I certainly wouldn't want to get caught sleeping in their path, they pose little threat to us. Anything else that isn't alert and somewhat mobile, all bets are off. Numbering in the millions, these armies of Eciton burchellii (the most used Army Ant by birds) swarm everything in their path, and everything from spiders, crickets, mammals, and lizards trip over themselves in a mad rush to get the heck out of the way.

Enter the "ant birds", and the source of birders' glee.

A column of army ants crosses a jungle road in Guatemala. Like well-disciplined soldiers, they condensed into a tight column when crossing the foodless roadway. Upon entering the jungle on the other side, they quickly fanned out on a wide track, and the action started. Bugs galore were scrambling madly out of the path in all directions. We watched one large spider who was slow on the draw. First one ant, then within seconds many, attacked and quickly brought it down. In no time, zero out one spider - nothing is left. Imagine the swath millions of these tiny predators cut through the jungle.

Jeff Gordon (right) and I provide some scale to the column. We didn't stay there especially long. The ants have no problems attempting assaults on large mammals if the chance permits.

A gorgeous Ruddy Woodcreeper works the ant column. There were a number of this species, as well as some Northern Barred Woodcreepers and a few other birds here, going crazy over the insects fleeing the column. They would sit low in the vegetation, and quickly drop down to the ground to snare some fleeing critter. It was interesting to watch the birds periodically shake themselves briskly, to toss off the ants that had gotten on them.

Central and South American avifauna is filled with species with names like antbird, antpitta, antshrike, antvireo, etc. These names don't originate because these species eat ants - in most cases, they don't, at least typically. It is because they are army ant followers, specializing to varying degrees in following ant columns and feeding on fleeing animals.

"Ant birds" come in three general categories. There are the opportunistic ant birds; these are species that take full advantage of the havoc wrought by an army ant column as it passes through their territory, but they don't follow the ants any further.

Then there are the "semi-pros"; species that do follow ant columns for some distance, but don't depend on them entirely as a way of finding food.

Then there are the professional ant followers. These are birds that seem to depend completely on the ants to flush food for them, and nomadically follow the marching columns. The woodcreeper pictured above is probably more of an opportunist, taking advantage of the wonderfully easy feeding opportunities created as the ants passed through its turf, but probably not following along very far.

So, next time you are in the tropics looking for birds, hope for the good fortune of bumbling into a couple million war-like ants.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Horned Guans and the Volcano

Wow! Freshly back from the jungles of Guatemala, and what a trip it was! Magnifico in nearly every aspect, and a bit of a shock to arrive back to Ohio and some 21 inches of white stuff blanketing the ground.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 4th International Bird Watching Encounter, organized and sponsored by Inguat, the tourism arm of the Guatemalan government. They are proactively - and wisely - marketing the great natural resources of their country to the ecotourism crowd, and I suspect Guatemala will be increasingly known as one of the must-see places in Central America.

Scads of photos here, still in a bit of disarray, but I wanted to slap something up right quick, and what better way to begin than with the marvelous Horned Guan. These pheasant-sized oddities are quite rare, with an estimated 1,000 birds surving in scattered locales of Guatemala and adjacent Mexico. And one must work to see one. No free lunches here. Story below.

The mighty San Pedro volcano looms from the shore of Lake Atitlan. The lake is about 5,100 feet elevation, the summit of the volcano juts to around 10,000 feet. Horned Guans? Just below the summit, and that's where we went.

Our party heads for the clouds. It took several hour to ascend to Guan country, uphill the entire way. These Ohio-adapted lungs struggled with the thinner air. Leading the pack is the absolutely indefatigable and irrepressible Tim Appleton, a topnotch Brit who is a driving force behind Bird Fair, the world's largest birding festival. About 19,000 people attended last year. Although Tim claimed to be 60, he neither looked nor acted it. He was up the volcano nearly faster than our local guides.

Great birding abounded on the slopes of San Pedro, and we nailed nearly all of the heavy-hitters like Blue-throated Motmot and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. This is Lesser Roadrunner, one of a pair that treated our party to wonderful looks, and in the process became perhaps the most photographed Lesser Roadrunners in history. Of equal interest to these tropical gems, at least to me, were the scores of neotropical birds. For instance, nearly incalcuable numbers of Tennessee Warblers created mini avian blizzards in the treetops, and there were more Western Tanagers than I've ever seen in one place.

There were other interesting animals on the volcano, and this is one of them. Jeff Bouton is an ambassador for Leica Optics, and I doubt they could find anyone better-suited to promote their gear. Jeff is also an extraordinary birder, and we were continually amazed by his incredible eyes and ID skills. I often felt like a semi-blind, illiterate piker around some of the people on this trip, although everyone was more than gracious about sharing their knowledge. Now, look closely at this photo. Jeff is sporting the latest in jungle chic...

Anole earrings! That's right, these reptilian adornments are sure to impress the crowd at the pub, or in Jeff's case, the girls at the disco. Just be quick on the draw, snatch an anole from the jungle floor, and stick its mouth to your ear. On it will clip, and off you go. Just like Mike Tyson nipping into Evander Holyfield.

Enough fiddling around with lizards. This was the primary beast we had climbed for hours to see. Horned Guan! These rather massive, arboreal fruit-eaters lurk at mid-levels of large trees, generally in areas densely cloaked with vines. They can be rather difficult to spot, if they remain still. When they get to clambering about, guans are rather clumsy and a bit like bulls in a china shop, though. This is one of four that we saw, and although my photos aren't the best, we were treated to absolutely stunning views through binos and scope. With their whitish bills and sparkling white eyes, topped by that bizarre red tubular cap on their crowns, Horned Guans are, well, odd-looking. Well worth a lengthy hike, and I hope that efforts increase to protect this wonderful and imperiled bird.

A guan's-eye view from the San Pedro volcano, looking down on Lake Atitlan and the village of San Pedro La Laguna. Guatemala is truly a fascinating country that is full of surprises, wonderful people, and great birding. I'll hope to post some more photos and reports later.