The nominate race of European Herring Gull Larus argentatus argentatus occurs in the roost at Draycote Water from late autumn to early spring with large numbers present throughout the mid-winter. In 2016 two adults summered providing us with an opportunity to study them through the period when they are usually absent.
Nominate European Herring Gulls wintering in the UK are generally considered to be from the northern part of the range. Variation within L.a.argentatus is clinal with birds averaging larger and darker across the range from south to north. The photo below shows that this individual photographed on 18/08/16 is only a shade paler than the Yellow-legged Gull in the same frame.
Ad. European Herring Gull, L.a.argentatus with Ad. Yellow-legged Gull Draycote Water, 18/08/16.
The bird also shows a restricted amount of black in the primaries. Whilst the primary pattern of European Herring Gull is variable L.a.argentatus typically show less black in the primaries than L.a.argeteus and the absence of black in the newly grown P5, long white tip to P10 and large white mirror in P9 are typical of northern L.a.argentatus but not diagnostic. Whilst the bird thus shows several features associated with northern Scandinavian L.a.argentatus it is impossible to determine its natal origin with certainty.
Ad. European Herring Gull, L.a.argentatus, Draycote Water, 18/08/16.
Ad. European Herring Gull, L.a.argentatus, Draycote Water, 18/08/16.
Primary moult in adult European Herring Gull commences in May and is completed by December. Northern populations of L.a.argentatus are often said to complete the moult a few weeks later than those breeding to the south. Malling Olsen gives L.a.argentatus from southern Scandinavia as moulting P 5-6 in mid-August. A Finnish bird documented here http://www.gull-research.org/hg/hg5cy/adaug07.htm has yet to drop P7 by 09/08. The bird documented here had already dropped the old P 7 and begun regrowing P6 by 18/08/16.
It can be seen that the heavily abraded tail has yet to commence moult which is consistent with the timing for tail moult given by Malling Olsen of Aug. – Oct. Head streaking, which occurs from August onwards, is apparent, particularly around the eye, though not extensive.
Ad. European Herring Gull, L.a.argentatus, Draycote Water, 18/08/16.
I am unsure how unusual, or otherwise, this moult progression is. If the moult is significantly advanced it seems likely to be a result of the bird summering outside of the usual range. Perhaps the moult timing was controlled by day length and thus a function of the southerly latitude at which the bird spent the summer. An alternative explanation may be that breeding birds undergo a slower moult as energy is devoted to reproduction and the rearing of chicks.
Though good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls can often be found in the Draycote Water roost during the post-breeding dispersal period in late summer and early autumn there are usually comparatively few juveniles present. Birds do linger throughout the day and this season juveniles have been something of a feature. Individuals can often be found loafing on the pontoons and further opportunities for close study are provided by birds preoccupied with fish along the banks and shorelines.
The rather heavy, muscular build, long legs and long deep bill with a pronounced gonyedal angle on the lower mandible are evident in these photos taken during my first visit of the season on 28/07/16. Both birds have fairly whitish body plumage with coarse brown streaks across the breast and along the flank sides, a whitish head with a slight brown smudge around the eye and rather uniform upperparts comprising brown feathers with neat pale whitish fringes. The outer greater coverts (those closest to the carpal joint on the folded wing) are plain brown with neat pale fringes and pale notching is apparent on the inner greater coverts. This pattern is fairly typical though as ever with gulls it is somewhat variable. The tertials are also brown with neat pale fringes though some paler markings are visible towards the tips.
As it breeds earlier, Yellow-legged Gull wears earlier and moults earlier than its northern relatives. Extensive abrasion is apparent on the fringes of the upperparts of both birds and whilst moult timing varies, the confusion species breeding in the UK would not typically have begun scapular moult as shown by the individual in the photo below. The second generation scapulars of Yellow-legged Gull are rather pale feathers with a dark central shaft which broadens out in to an anchor shaped sub-terminal mark with a pale fringe.
On the 03/08/16 several birders were at Draycote, drawn by the continued presence of a Wood Sandpiper and Dave Hutton, Bob Hazel and I took the opportunity to scrutinise the juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls encountered over the course of the morning. Dave took a number of photos which, as ever, were superb and has kindly allowed me to reproduce some of them. All the features mentioned previously are well illustrated here.
Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Draycote Water, photo by Dave Hutton
Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Draycote Water, photo by Dave Hutton
In flight the inner primaries are typically darker than those of Herring Gull and paler than those of Lesser Black-backed Gull. The tail band is black and very neatly edged whilst the rest of the tail and upper tail coverts are white with sparse dark arrowhead markings. Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull will typically show much more extensive dark markings in the upper tail and this is perhaps the best identification feature. The secondaries are very dark and the pattern of the greater coverts, with plain centred outers and notched inners, is distinctive.
Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Draycote Water, photo by Dave Hutton
Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull is typically much browner on the head and body, often shows an obviously smaller and slimmer bill and long narrow primaries. The scapular fringes are slightly buff and less evenly narrow, many are often notched. This bird was photographed by Dave Hutton the same day and is somewhat atypical in that the bill is quite hefty, suggesting a large male. Note also that it has already moulted a scapular but the feather fringes appear fairly fresh.
Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull, Draycote Water, photo by Dave Hutton
These birds show the extensively brown head and body plumage, large pale notches on the edges of the tertials and heavily barred greater coverts typical of juvenile Herring Gull.
Thanks are due to Dave Hutton for kind permission to reproduce his excellent images and Martin Elliott for advice relating to all things larid. Any errors contained herein are mine alone.
Whilst looking at Bob Hazell’s Twitter feed recently my attention was drawn to a photo of an adult Common Sandpiper taken on 18/04/16 at Draycote Water which showed a projection of the tail beyond the folded wing tip that was pretty much identical to that of Spotted Sandpiper. The bird was correctly identified by Bob as a Common Sandpiper. Spotted Sandpiper completes its moult later than Common Sandpiper, by mid April/early May so would be likely to have at least some spotting on the underparts by that date. Additional features confirming the identification include dull legs, a bill pattern typical of Common Sandpiper, densely marked upperparts and a fairly solid breast band whilst the bird lacks the pale face and particularly well defined supercillium of Spotted.
Adult Common Sandpiper, Draycote Water, 18/04/16, by Bob Hazell.
Common Sandpipers with short tails are known to occur, a well-documented individual spent the winter of 2014-15 on the Hayle Estuary in Cornwall and Alan Dean has pointed out that the measurements for tail length of the two species do overlap. I immediately called John Judge to discuss the Draycote bird and the conversation reminded him that in October 2015, whilst John was on Scilly and I was in Brazil, Bob had found a Juv./1stW bird which he thought was a Spotted Sandpiper. Bob had been reticent to ‘go public’ with the news before getting a second opinion but had struggled to get anyone interested in the bird, which spent several days in the vicinity of Windsurfers. This immediately piqued my interest as Bob’s opinion is not something to take lightly. Luckily there is a photo, taken by Bob, and when I saw it I could find no reason to doubt that it was indeed a Spotted Sandpiper (though the photo has been taken in poor light and is not of the highest resolution). I looked immediately at the tertials which appear plain, though one or two pale spots are perhaps visible at the tips if the photo is blown right up. The rest of the upperparts are also remarkably plain except for the coverts which are heavily and coarsely barred in strong contrast. John agreed, but lacking confidence as ever I sought a second opinion from Martin Elliott. This went along the lines of ‘Spotted Sand., bolted on’. Alan Dean also thought the identification sound. In addition to the features mentioned, attention was drawn to the bright yellow legs (though I have to say I have seen Common Sandpiper with bright yellow legs), the weakly defined breast band, pale face, well defined supercillium and eye ring. Obviously the short tail is another feature and taken in combination the field characters result in a bird of fairly distinctive appearance. The only surviving photo is reproduced below and should hopefully be sufficient to get the record accepted by the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) in spite of the fact that the call was not heard and the wing pattern not noted (the bird very seldom flying).
Juv./1st W Spotted Sandpiper, Draycote Water, October 2015, by Bob Hazell.
If accepted this will constitute the sixth record for both Draycote Water and Warwickshire. Bob found the fifth, a summer plumaged adult in May 2014 and this record has been accepted by the BBRC and is due for publication in the 2014 report of the West Midland Bid Club (WMBC). It should be made clear that Bob made his opinion that the bird was a Spotted Sandpiper known at the time and I feel he should be commended for his caution. On the pitifully few occasions I have been in a similar position I have always sought confirmation that I have not gone barmy, or allowed the desire to find something rare cloud my judgement. In the case of the Lesser Scaup I found at Draycote in 2010 it was Bob who came to my assistance and I am only too pleased to return the favour, albeit (and unfortunately for me) retrospectively.
Thanks are due to Martin Elliott and Alan Dean for comments on the photographs and content of this post.
Friends will confirm I have been moaning for some time now about my inability to find anything other than white-winged gulls. It was perhaps an unreasonable gripe given that gull roosting was the only birding I had time for all winter. Anyway, my luck eventually changed. It began gently enough with a M and F/Imm. Common Scoter (the latter perhaps more likely to have been a F as the Imm. M present on 06/01 was already diagnosable, showing yellow on the bill) and two Arctic Terns brought down by rain at Draycote Water on the evening of 15/04. The terns were still present the next day when there was a small scatter of records across the West Midlands along with another new scoter.
I was out early on 17/04 to begin the breeding bird survey season on my six HLS study farms. It had been a clear night with a frost and it was so cold I decided to delay my start as air temperature has a significant influence on song activity. I went looking for Ring Ouzels. I have found a couple in Northamptonshire but the only ones I ever found in Warwickshire were a bit of a cheat in that I went to Napton to twitch two and discovered there were actually four present. Checking arable fields along the Flecknoe Road I noticed three grey geese flying very low N/NE towards the road from the direction of Napton. I don’t know why I even bothered to look at them given the time of year and suspect it was because there was nothing else to distract me. I was surprised to find they were not Greylags. They had dark heads and necks, similar in appearance to Pink-footed Goose but appeared to be showing no pale forewing. As they flew towards the road I checked the head, neck and wings again, still the heads and necks appeared dark brown and there was no pale forewing visible. The flock crossed the road in perfect light some 500 metres from me and now I was sure there was no pale forewing, the upper wing appearing remarkably uniform and the underwing dark. In addition I noticed that the backs were dark and compared to Pink-footed Goose the dark neck faded rather gradually in to the paler breast. The underparts were quite pale and fairly uniform in appearance but for a darker area towards the rear flanks. I also noted that the dark band across the tail was very broad and the tail had just a narrow white border. Structurally the birds appeared larger and heavier than Pink-footed Goose though obviously there were none present for comparison. The bills simply appeared dark and I heard no calls. Before they got too far away from me I had time to check the features I had registered a couple of times more. On reaching Draycote Water the group turned NE and I last saw them over Farborough Bank. I had not committed the flight identification features of Bean Goose to memory but returning to the car and checking the old Collins Guide I keep in the glove box I discovered that I had seen most of them, though I failed to note a distinct white border to the greater coverts. I was reticent to ascribe them to sub-species on the basis of a flight view but they certainly did not appear as obviously long-necked as Taiga Bean Goose does in my, admittedly somewhat limited, experience. As it was around 06.30 and Draycote would not open for an hour I drove to Thurlaston and walked down to Toft Bay. There were only Canadas in the bay, or anywhere else on the reservoir and a quick check of the field by the sewage works, favoured by geese, also drew a blank. Finally I got to work and surveying the Pleasance in Kenilworth found a Greenland Wheatear. It was not a dark individual, which is typical of the earlier birds passing through the UK that are said to be of Icelandic origin. Interestingly Martin Elliott saw several in Cornwall the day before.
The next real local rarity was another tardy ‘northerner’. Zigzagging a winter wheat field at Upper Brailles on 18/04 I looked up to see a bird on telegraph wires. It was face on and whilst I had no idea what it was, I wasn’t expecting anything special. Lifting my bins I was pretty shocked to find myself looking at a Great Grey Shrike.
Great Grey Shrike, Upper Brailles.
Great Grey Shrike, Upper Brailles.
It was 07.30 so I called Matt Willmott, the land management adviser who handles the farm and continued surveying. Matt and I met at around 10.00 and he called the farmer. The chap was quite happy for people to see it but didn’t want them parking in his yard, where he also lives. I managed to find a gateway along a public road from which the bird could be viewed when up on the wires and called a few people. Gus Ariss and Steve Valentine duly arrived and before we had got round to working out how to acquire a grid reference for a message the bird flew to the crown of a large tree near the road. After a short pause it flew on, crossing the road to the north where it was last seen in the vicinity of Nineveh Farm at around 12.30. During its time at Brailles the shrike was feeding on large invertebrates along an unharvested headland, a HLS option which provides a source of food for gramnivores, particularly Yellowhammer, in winter. Since surveys began in 2010 we have been finding a variety of non-target species, including numerous migrants, using HLS options and I have discussed the subject here http://www.rainsbrooknaturalhistory.com/the-benefits-of-hls-to-migrant-and-wintering-birds/ and here http://www.rainsbrooknaturalhistory.com/a-purple-patch-on-the-patch/ . When I eventually got round to finishing the survey I discovered a small arrival had occurred in the pasture fields on the adjacent hill top, mostly comprised of warblers but including two super smart male Common Redstarts.
Though the Great Grey Shrike was the first I have seen in the UK in spring it was the fourth I have found in Warwickshire and I almost got an even bigger boot out of what happened the next day. As I walked through a bird mix on a neighbouring farm at Honington (something I only had to do to get close enough to hear birds in the bordering hedgerow) I heard a distinctive ‘tchuk’ call. I had finally found my Ring Ouzel, but the mix was a two year one and the Kale waist high so there was a nervous pause before the bird broke in to view. It flew right past me and nosedived in to the hedge at the top of the slope, disappearing in seconds. I returned once more that day, for a photo to validate the record and again I only got to see it when it flushed.
Ring Ouzel, Honington.
Though the mix had a footpath running along its edge there seemed no point putting the details out when the bird could not be seen and I suspect the farmer would have been unhappy if he had found people wandering around in his bird mixes. I checked it again the following day when it was still present and still not viewable without walking in to the mix. These two year mixes are frequently used by Song Thrush and Dunnock but I have to say I had never considered seeing a Ring Ouzel in such tall vegetation. I shall spend less time bashing sheep paddocks and gorse covered hills for them in future and concentrate more effort on damp field margins.
It was back to normal on 20/04, a singing Grasshopper Warbler near Long Compton the best I could manage, but I shall never forget those preceding three days.
POST SCRIPT Whilst birding at Napton Res. with Dan Watson on 24/04 I received a call to tell me Martin Elliott, who was surveying the Upton Estate for Rainsbrook Ecology, had just found a Great Grey Shrike. Dan and I sped over there and spent an enjoyable hour watching the bird in some horse paddocks just outside Edgehill. It seems unlikely that it was not the same individual which was at Brailles the previous week, the two localities being just a few miles apart. Again the bird had settled on land under a HLS agreement.
In my last post that covered local birding I discussed the very strong probability that the Ad. Gluacous Gull ringed G1NT had returned to the Midlands again this winter. I finished the discussion with the comment ‘It will be interesting to see if there are any definite reports of G1NT this winter’. There was, G1NT was present at Sandbach Flashes in Cheshire from 08-10/03. The only other Glaucous Gull we have had at Draycote Water since that post was also tracked after it left there but over an even shorter distance. On 25/02 I found a Sub Ad. which was still present in the roost the following evening. From 27-28/02 this bird roosted at Chasewater and was also seen at Stubbers Green. The video footage taken at the latter locality by Craig Reed confirmed its individual identity and can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFvDCOODsII&feature=youtu.be .
A late run of Iceland Gulls has somewhat evened out the unusual ratio of this species to Glaucous Gull this winter, as referred to in previous posts. I found an Ad. on the 26/02 and another on 23/03 which was still present in the roost the following evening. This bird was interesting in that it was a particularly dark grey on the upperparts but no dark markings were visible in the primaries. John Judge found a Juv. on 15/03 which turned out to be feeding at Shawell in nearby Liecestershire. Things ended badly for this individual which finished up with a broken wing so severe it had to be caught and eventually euthanised. Though we often get Iceland Gulls in April I was surprised to find a Juv. on 05/04 followed rapidly by a 3rd W on 08/04. Again, the 3rd W bird was located at Shawell the following day and photos can be viewed here http://bagawildone.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/a-county-tick-couple-of-rouzels-and.html . This takes the tally for the winter to seven, equalling the minimum number of Glaucous Gulls (though there has almost certainly been nine of the latter). These birds also even out the unusual age class ratio a bit with the combined total for both species standing at 6 juveniles, 6 adults, one 3rd W and one 4th W. Juveniles however, still represent a remarkably small percentage of the overall total compared to a ‘normal’ winter.
Peak annual counts for Mediterranean Gulls at Draycote generally come as adults and occasional second year birds migrate NE in late winter/early spring. This year was fairly typical in that our highest count was three in a single roost, though they were perhaps recorded on comparatively few evenings.
I have been unable to find any late Caspian Gulls in the roost though they may have been present whilst most of the Yellow-legged Gulls had gone by the middle of March, the adults having departed but occasional 2nd and 3rd year birds still turning up. Most recently the remarkable gull records have been of Little Gull with an influx of c.160 in to the West Midlands occurring on 11/04. I was unable to get out all day but an evening visit to Draycote yielded 28 birds including two 2nd S. Though 20 were present the next day it appears there was some turnaround as the tally included three 1st S and 5 2nd S. Odd birds were present for the rest of the week.
A moulting adult Slavonian Grebe found at Draycote by Bob Hazel on 31/03 was another trackable individual.
Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water 31/03/16.
This bird appears to have travelled from Chew Valley Lakes in Somerset where it was present from 29-30/03. On 01/04 it went missing only to be found at nearby Daventry Reservoir on 02/04 by Gary Pullen. After another AWOL day Bob found it back at Draycote again where it remained until 13/04, the moult considerably advanced by the time it left.
Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water 10/04/16.
I have referred to records of birds moving between Draycote and Daventry in my discussion of bird migration through the Upper Leam, which can be viewed by selecting Leam Valley from the menu bar. Several instances have now been documented but this is the first one I can think of where an individual left one locality for the other and then returned.
Yet another tracked bird which recently appeared in the Upper Leam was a Ferruginous x Tufted Duck hybrid found by John Judge at Napton Res. on 14/04 which was previously recorded at Draycote and prior to that at Earlswood Lakes.
Ferruginous x Tufted Duck hybrid, Napton Res.
A White Wagtail was there the same evening and up to six were recorded at Draycote Water the same week.
White Wagtail, Napton Res.
A M Common Redstart on private land near Stockton on 08/04 has been the only recent notable bird in the Upper Leam. I was too busy to bird the valley this winter but several interesting reports were made. Most significant was a small flock of Pink-footed Geese over Willoughby (per Dennis Cooper) sometime in the mid-winter period. A Long-eared Owl was seen in flight at Millholme Parc one evening in March and an owl with ear tufts was reported by local farmer Jeff Clarke from an area close to where the species has previously been recorded. Short-eared Owls were reported at Flecknoe Railway Cottages early in the winter and three were near Marton in the New Year period. Jack Snipes have been recorded at both of the sites where the species has wintered in recent years but numbers were low with just three birds present.
Now came what was for me the most exciting part of the tour, a week in the Amazon at the jungle lodge on the Rio Cristalino. Our boat journey to Rio Cristalino was notable for amazing views of an adult Ornate-Hawk Eagle but we arrived at the lodge too late to get much birding done. The highlights of an evening walk were Blackish Nightjar and Black-throated Antbird.
On our first full day we were straight in to the thick of it with a hike up the Serra 2 trail. A Razor-billed Currasow on the boat journey to the trail head was fortunate indeed as it turned out to be the only one we saw. This species is usually reliable at Rio Cristalino but the rains had started and many animals which are generally found at the river edges during the dry season were being seen far less frequently since the onset of the rainfall. Serra 2 was a great success and highlights included Gould’s Toucanet and Long-billed Woodcreeper which remained high in the canopy whilst Xingu Scale-backed and Spix’s Warbling Antbirds gave excellent views as did the chief target on this trail, Alta Floresta Antpitta. A massive stroke of luck was finding two Black-girdled Barbets in a fairly low tree off the trail resulting in some unusually great views. By the time we reached the granite outcrop it was really hot and sweat bees plagued us but it was worth it for the views of Tooth-billed Wren (another species usually seen from canopy towers) and Striolated Puffbird. Returning for lunch a Glossy Antshrike was a nice welcome back by the floating deck at the lodge. In the afternoon we took our first trip to the ‘Pocinha’, a small waterhole set up inside the forest by local guides. Birds come here in the dry season in the late afternoon and it affords remarkable opportunities to get superb views of numerous difficult species. It was a little quiet on our first visit but we saw several good birds, the best being Dot-backed Antbird and White-winged Shrike-Tanager.
Our second day began with a clamber up the canopy tower on the same side of the river as the lodge. It is really too high and as a result most of the birds are very distant. It was slow going but we did see some nice birds including Curl-crested Aracari, Ringed and Scaly-breasted Woodpeckers, Scarlet Macaw, Spangled Cotinga, Bare-necked Fruitcrow and White-browed Purpletuft. A walk around the Saliero Loop Trail was hard work but produced Great Jacamar, Saturnine Antshrike, Large-headed Flatbill, Red-headed and Snow-capped Manakins and the smart Wing-barred Piprites. Lunch was interrupted by a day roosting Crested Owl right by the lodge.
We took a bit of a boat ride in the afternoon before returning to the Pochina. It was fairly quiet but just as we headed in for the trail head the boat man yelled Harpy Eagle, Harpy Eagle! I intuitively looked as high as I could but the bird was actually remarkably low down and sitting almost right above the trail head.
This was my other ‘most wanted’ bird of the trip and we enjoyed close range views for some thirty minutes or more before it flew across the river, landing still within view but further away and against the sun.
Harpy is seen regularly along the Rio Cristalino but again I think we were fortunate as sightings had reduced in frequency since the rains had begun. That said, the following day one was seen with a Howler Monkey though I am not sure if the kill was witnessed. When we finally got to the Pocinha the stunning day continued with repeated views of Dot-backed and Spot-backed Antbirds, White-crowned Manakin and Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin whilst the highlight was several visits by the amazing and weird looking Bare-eyed Antbird. This last species is something of a speciality at Cristalino but is an ant swarm follower so if you don’t find an ant swarm your only option usually is to trawl around the forest desperately hoping one is responsive to play back. The Pocinha spared us that fate and our encounter with Bare-eyed Antbird is a prime example of just how useful the ‘Magic Pond’ can be.
We started day three with a hike up the Serra 1 trail where the best birds found from the outcrop were White-necked Puffbird and Pompadour Cotinga. A number of hummers were seen in the higher elevation forest as well as Southern White-fringed Antwren and best of all a Pied Puffbird. The previous night Eduardo had taken Warren and I out to a hide to look for Brazilian Tapir as it was no longer being seen regularly on the river. We had failed as the hide was full of photographers but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we found one in the river the following afternoon. The animal quickly moved in to the forest where it could be seen through gaps in the screen of vegetation. Eduardo played a recording of a Tapir vocalisation and incredibly it emerged and re-entered the river (whether in response or by coincidence we shall never know)!
Though the Dr. Haffer’s Trail was extremely quiet we did get good views of our main target species there, Rufous-capped Nunlet. Returning to the lodge we had had another riverside encounter with a bird which would have been far easier a few weeks earlier before the rains started, an Agami Heron. This one was an immature bird nowhere near as striking as the adults but pretty remarkable nonetheless. It was followed by our second Zigzag Heron of the trip.
At the base of Tower 2 the next morning the stand out bird for me was a Banded Antbird though the Uniform Woodcreeper which came in to the same area was more unusual. Kwall’s Amazon, White-bellied Parrot and a group of White-nosed Saki Monkeys were the best of the sightings from the tower. The highlight of a race against time to reach the bamboo along Fransisco’s Trail was a brief view of a Tapajos Hermit. An afternoon along the Brazil Nut Trail was slow and though we tried hard to coax a Cryptic Forest Falcon in to view the bird just would not show itself and the best bird of the session was a superb Musician Wren.
As I left after breakfast the following day I heard Toni mention an anteater and though Giant Anteater has actually been recorded at Rio Cristalino I guessed correctly that this was going to be the largely arboreal Southern Tamandua. It was low down on a trunk and we all had great looks though I squandered some of my time with it by foolishly running back to my room for the camera (always carry it with you in an environment like that). Heading off along the Rio Teles Pires we found Blackish and White-browed Antbirds in quick measure before stopping off at an adjacent island where we enjoyed great views of Amazonian Umbrellabird. Black-collared Swallow and Amazonian Tyrannulet were among the better birds picked up along the way to our next stop at Ariosto Island. Here we had excellent views of the main target species, the stunning Flame-crowned Manakin. Other good birds included Undulated Tinamou, Cinnamon Attila and the diminutive Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, the smallest passerine on earth. Lunch was interupted by a rapid ‘twitch’ for a four metre long Green Anaconda on a river island some ten minutes upstream from the lodge. Though the animal is resident on the island it had not been seen for weeks so yet again our luck was in.
Shortly after we started out down the Cocoa Trail that afternoon we found the most extraordinary moth. I reckoned it must have been the best part of one foot from wingtip to wingtip and it turned out I was about right. When we got back to the lodge I asked a girl who was studying butterflies about it and she told me we had seen a White Witch, the world’s largest moth with a maximum wingspan of 32cm. Though the species has a large geographic range we were I think fortunate as the student herself had yet to find one.
White Witch by Warren Hardman
White Witch by Warren Hardman
A Dusky-tailed Flatbill, superb views of a stunning male Snow-capped Manakin and a frustratingly awkward Tapajos Scythebill were the avian highlights along the trail.
Rio Cristalino was action packed to the last with a final mornings haul that included Collared and Brown-banded Puffbirds, Bamboo Foliage-gleaner, Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak and Emilia’s Marmoset.
As I understand it the birding at Rio Cristalino has changed. Some species have gone or all but gone whilst many which were once common are now less numerous. It is interesting to speculate as to why this might be and tempting to attribute it to climate change and de-forestation in surrounding areas leading to a ‘drying out’ of the forest. It is however still the most incredible place and ranks with Danum Valley in Borneo or the Bwindi National Park in Uganda in my book as one of top single localities you can visit. I hope this account gives some idea of just how exciting it can be.
Shortly after leaving Porto Jofre our first stop along the Transpantaniera was to search for Grey-breasted Crake and excellent views were had. Subtropical Doradito, a day roosting Great Horned Owl and a Brazilian Guinea Pig were also seen on our journey to Piuval whilst a stop for drinks yielded some good opportunities to photograph Bare-faced Currasow and Azara’s Agouti.
Bare-faced Currasow, Female.
Approaching Piuval Lodge, Red-legegd Seriema and Greater Rhea were prominent residents of the grasslands along the entrance road. Convergent evolution has left these two species with respective body plans uncanny in their resemblance to the Secretary Bird and Ostrich of the African Savannah.
A brief scout around the woodland in the afternoon gave us excellent views of Great Rufous Woodcreeper, a superb bird we had seen previously during a productive stop at the old research station which also yielded Chestnut-bellied Guan, Golden-collared Macaw and Pale-crested Woodpecker. Added interest was provided by a very approachable group of Black Howler Monkeys. This species is very unusual among primates in that males, females and infants all have different coloured hair.
Black Howler Monkey, Female.
A spot-lighting expedition was organised for that night and with great anticipation we piled in to tiered seats on the back of a large truck. Much of the eye shine picked up was from nightjars but Crab-eating Foxes were fairly numerous and a Tapiti was also seen. As we headed back to the lodge I called out some eye shine off to our right, the animal disappearing behind a large tree just as the beam of light reached it. I carried on searching through binoculars. Though it seemed likely to be another fox, I was aware the drive was almost over and desperate to find something spectacular. Eduardo kept the beam on the base of the tree and after what seemed like an age the animal eventually reappeared. As it came in to view I was somewhat shocked to hear myself saying ‘it’s an Ocelot!’ Rather than approach, Eduardo had the truck drive along a parallel course and we watched the Ocelot foraging for several minutes. At one point it sprang up in to the air and dropped, very much in the manner of a domestic cat but appeared to have missed its quarry and slowly walked away from us. Last minute excitement was provided by some Crab-eating Racoons.
Next morning we successfully bagged our first target species, the localised White-fronted Woodpecker.
Black-bellied Antwren was slow to give itself up but showed well eventually and an added bonus came in the form of a Black-tailed Marmoset. Next we headed out to a ditch at the edge of the marsh where a Rufous-sided Crake had been calling the evening before. Eduardo picked his spots wisely and settled on a stretch of ditch where a dense shrub blocked the light and prevented other plants from growing. This left a comparatively open area of bank underneath and two crakes were successfully lured across it giving unobscured views, though brief and poorly lit. Whilst successfully tracking down a Least Bittern at the marsh edge Eduardo commented that it would be a perfect place for Yellow-breasted Crake. A speculative ‘trawl’ rapidly elicited a response and after a few minutes Eduardo picked the bird up. We lost it briefly as it moved towards us and then it popped up very close and we enjoyed superb views of a species which has a patchy distribution in Brazil and is, as virtually all small crakes, very difficult to see.
On the way back distractions came in the form of a Greater Rhea with chicks and a day roosting Great Potoo superbly found from the moving bus by Warren.
Greater Rhea, with chicks.
Having cleaned up on target species and added several unexpected species to the list we were free to spend a relaxed afternoon birding. In the searing heat no more surprises were forthcoming but there were some good opportunities for photography.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.
We had a full day scheduled to search for Jaguars and were fairly confident we were in for a good time as sightings had been numerous. I don’t think anybody had quite anticipated just how good it would be though. We found our first Jaguar within half an hour or so and by the time we headed back for lunch had something like six encounters, mostly with different animals. One of the first was high up on the river embankment stalking a Capybara some distance below on the water’s edge. It had been immobile for an age, waiting for the right time to pounce and eventually decided to do so just as I adjusted the settings on my camera. I missed the ‘flight shot’ as it sprang off the bank and it missed the Capybara, slinking back up the bank and vanishing in the forest edge shortly after. Other animals were closer, simply lazing around in the shade or coming down the water’s edge to drink. Although boats often cluster around animals in a fashion reminiscent of busses in game parks it is easy to blot them out when watching a Jaguar at close range through binoculars and when you find one you have it all to yourselves for as long as it takes the word to go round.
It was also nice to see some Giant River Otters behaving more naturally than those we had previously seen when we found a group hauled out on a beach.
Giant River Otter
Among the birds seen were Collared Plover, Black Skimmer, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, typical inhabitants of wide rivers flowing through tropical forest across much of South America.
A more unusual sighting for the Pantanal was of a Long-winged Harrier drifting over the river.
Back at the hotel the ‘garden birding’ included the bird most associated with the Pantanal, the spectacular Hyacinth Macaw and the equally spectacular Toco Toucan, a bill with a bird attached to it.
Thanks to a tip off from some friends of mine who were staying at the hotel we also managed to see a Brazilian Porcupine. It was sleeping on a tree bough so the views were not the best but it was my first Porcupine of any species and I was really pleased to see it at all (which was not easy as the photograph below demonstrates).
Everyone agreed that we had done about as well as we could with the Jaguars so we spent the afternoon searching a black water tributary where we found groups of White-lipped Peccary and Black Howler Monkey along with some nice birds including this showy Boat-billed Heron.
As we made our way back along the Rio Cuiaba at dusk the air was alive with Fishing Bats and Band-tailed Nighthawks but all too soon it would be time to start moving back along the Transpantaniera.
On 12/10 we began our journey along the famous Transpantaniera, the dirt road which crosses some 80 miles or so of the Pantanal finishing at Porto Jofre, the staging point for trips along the Rio Cuiabá in search of Jaguar. Mercifully we had left the worst of the weather behind us. I suspect it was comparatively dry in the Pantanal but there was a never ending parade of wildlife to interrupt our progress to our first stop at the Pantanal Matto Grosso Hotel. Pantanal Caiman were absurdly numerous, lining the roadside and ringing the edges of every pool.
I was reacquainted with numerous marsh birds familiar from my time in Bolivia including Jabiru, Wood Stork, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Green Ibis, the ungainly Southern Screamer, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Ringed Kingfisher and the attractive Black-capped Donacobius.
Rufescent Tiger Heron.
A brief stop in some gallery forest was successful in locating White-eyed Attila and produced a bonus in the form of several Dark-billed Cuckoos, an uncommon summer breeding resident. Further stops were made for Blue-crowned Parakeet and the first of several Marsh Deer we would see before we eventually checked in.
After lunch a walk along a forested trail was quiet in the mid-afternoon heat but we found a number of good birds including Rufous-tailed Jacamar and our first Matto Grosso Antbirds.
Late in the afternoon we took a boat trip along the Rio Pixaim where we had excellent views of a number of good birds including Bare-faced Currasow, Blue-fronted Piping Guan, Sunbittern and Sungrebe. I particularly enjoyed the Sungrebe and a first for me was seeing the pale legs and lobed feet with their broad black bands. One of two stand-out encounters for me was with my first Giant River Otters and they didn’t disappoint. I knew they were enormous but it is still a bit of a shock when you hear the bow wave and turn to see something the size of a Labrador homing straight in on your boat. The boatmen lure them over with fish and whilst this feels a little contrived and somehow slightly less ‘wild’ it does provide excellent opportunities for photography.
Giant River Otter.
The other was with one of the two birds I most wanted to see on the entire trip, the diminutive Zigzag Heron. Though it has a wide range encompassing a number of vast river basins this species is classified as Near Threatened and very little is known about it, a result of its secretive and nocturnal habits. They are located by listening for them and it is a thrilling thing to drift along a waterway at dusk and hear your first one calling from the forested banks. I had no recording gear with me but the eerie sound and something of the atmosphere can be gleaned from listening to the recordings here http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Zebrilus-undulatus . The next trick is to locate the small bird among the screen of vegetation in a searchlight beam but at least once that is done they generally sit tight, affording ample opportunity to admire.
A wander along the airstrip early the following morning gave us good views of a nice selection of species the best of which were Long-tailed Ground Dove, Green-backed Becard and Chesnut-bellied Seed Finch. A return to the forest in the afternoon was hard work but among the good birds we found were the super smart Cream-coloured Woodpecker and the astounding Red-billed Scythebill along with our first Band-tailed Antbird. The drive to Porto Jofre was eventful and one notable stop was made for a group of Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, an uncommon and particularly good looking speciality bird of the Pantanal.
Our final stops were made in the dark. A baby Yellow Anaconda occasioned the first.
The second was made for a large snake we originally thought was going to be another anaconda. It turned out to be a Brazilian Lancehead, a pit-viper from the deadly genus Bothrops. Again I am indebted to Warren Hardman (who shared my enthusiasm for such things) for the image reproduced below. During nocturnal bird surveys in Bolivia I had met previously with Bothrops, but they were small animals in comparison and I had no idea they could reach this size.
Brazilian Lancehead by Warren Hardman.
I was happy to arrive at the hotel that evening, full of anticipation for our dedicated Jaguar watching excursion the following day.
The principal reason birders visit Cipó is to see the Cipo Canastero. It is fair to say the discovery of this species in 1985 was something of a sensation, residing as it does on rocky outcrops in south-central Minais Gerais state thousands of miles from any other Canastero species, which are generally found in the Andes. During my tenure as Conservation Officer of the Neotropical Bird Club I administered the small grants scheme operated by the club and we made an award for surveys of Cipo Canastero which is now known from a small number of localities. This is just as well as the species suffers from parasitism by Shiny Cowbird and degradation of its habitat where it prefers the most heavily vegetated gullies and slopes.
Type locality of Cipo Canastero.
It was interesting to visit the type locality after all these years and see the bird, which gave us the run around before performing nicely. Unfortunately at ranges close enough for photography it refused to pause long enough for a shot. Two really smart hummingbirds, Hyacinth Visorbearer and Horned Sungem occur here and both were seen on our first morning whilst Blue Finch was encountered for the second time on the tour.
Another good bird seen that morning was Pale-throated Pampa Finch, a Near Threatened species endemic to Chapada grasslands in eastern Brazil. Again we were made to work hard in the breezy conditions but secured excellent views of an individual lacking the feature for which it is scientifically named, the long tail.
Pale-throated Pampa Finch.
We spent the afternoon in a successful quest for Long-tailed Cinclodes, another furnarid species with a disjunct distribution that includes a population in the Cipó region.
Our second day around Cipó started with a visit to a gallery forest where we had great views of the localised Henna-capped Foliage-gleaner before we moved on to more open terrain again. A roadside stop to look for Checkered Woodpecker paid off handsomely with an extended encounter at close range.
Even better was a male Horned Sungem which had taken up residence around some flowering plants and was thus much easier to observe than the widely scattered birds we had seen previously at higher altitudes.
Horned Sungem, Male.
Before lunch we tried a road through some dry forest where the highlights of a superb session were two Caatinga species, Caatinga Puffbird and Silvery-cheeked Antshrike. Again you would have to travel a long way from Cipó before you reached another site where you could see either of these birds.
It was then time to move on to Chapada dos Guimarães and we arrived in rather gloomy conditions which rapidly worsened and remained atrocious for the entire length of our stay.
The photograph below is pretty much the only one I have from Chapada and shows our leader Eduardo Patrial whose tenacity and skill ensured we still saw some superb birds.
These included Pheasant Cuckoo, Brown Jacamar, White-eared Puffbird, Red-shouldered Macaw, Point-tailed Palmcreeper, Firey-capped and Band-tailed Manakins, and Rufous-sided Pygmy Tyrant.
Band-tailed Manakin by Warren Hardman.
Our next stop was to be the Pantanal. Anticipation was mounting as were concerns about the weather.