Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hong Kong Birding, Day 2 - Choi's Birding Spots

Our friend and local birder, Allwatin Choi, picked us up from our hotel to take us around some choice birding spots. Our first stop was at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. Our target bird was the Yellow-cheeked Tit, an uncommon bird in Hong Kong. 

It was a long, arduous climb to the spot where this species chose to build a nest. A whole gang of enthusiastic bird photographers were already there when we arrived, patiently waiting for the adult tits to appear. 

A bunch of guys waiting to see a pair of tits
 After what seemed an eternity, one adult finally came bringing food to its nestlings. A flurry of shots. And in just a few seconds the bird flew off. Another long wait. It was nearing noon so we told Allwatin that we're ok with the shot of the Yellow-cheeked Tit that I got and we could move on.

On the way down, I mentioned to our friend that one of the birds we'd like to see is the Fork-tailed Sunbird - arguably the only sunbird found in Hong Kong. He said that it might be difficult since it's that time of year where there weren't many flowers in bloom. He had barely finished talking when he heard a trill. "Fork-tailed Sunbirds!" he exclaimed with a tone of surprise. Soon enough the tiny, colorful bird showed up and flitted quite close to us. "I've never seen them this close!" was Allwatin's incredulous comment. Strange hearing that from him since he had been birding in Hong Kong for quite some time now and I'm sure already had several encounters with this species. But then again my wife and I had similar experiences before so we were not really surprised at what just happened.

fork-tailed sunbird, hong kong birds

As if that was not enough, as soon as the sunbird left the premises, our friend pointed at a small waterway behind us. There, as nonchalant as a bored panda, was a Blue Whistling Thrush - another addition to our life list.

blue whistling thrush, hongkong birds

Our next stop was a small open area in a subdivision. There another bird photographer, whom Allwatin knew (and possibly the one who told him about this place) pointed up to a tree branch. We initially had difficulty seeing the object up there. Then our friend's friend showed us a spot where there was a space between the tree trunk and a huge branch, then from theat vantage point the object became visible. An Asian Barred Owlet was peering down at the curious photographers below.

asian barred owlet, hongkong birds

Our next stop was the Kam Tin river. Allwatin told us that since Mai Po, a favorite birding place in Hong Kong, will most likely not have much to offer this time of year, not to mention a permit would be necessary to get in there, the next best thing would be the road by this river. Cynthia and I were glad we stopped by here. Because the very first bird I saw was a Pied Avocet - a lifer that we failed to see in the Philippines. 

Black-faced Spoonbills were here too. In breeding plumage!

To cap off the day we got another lifer - the Chinese Pond Heron, albeit a juvenile. Allwatin was surprised that this was the first time we've seen this bird. "You never saw them at the lagoon in Kowloon Park?" he asked in disbelief. Apparently this species was a regular at the park, we just didn't have the luck to see them there.

It was already past noon. There was a restaurant nearby that our friend recommended. We enjoyed a very hearty lunch of Chinese delicacies.

It had been a very productive day of birding for us. We added 6 more lifers to our list. We don't have enough words to say how much we appreciated Allwatin for taking time off from his work so he can take us to the awesome birding spots in Hong Kong. 唔該, Allwatin!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hong Kong Birding, Day 1 - Kowloon at Last

Cynthia and I were so glad that Kowloon Park is just within walking distance from our hotel. Friends had been telling us that despite being in the middle of an urban area, this park still hosts a lot of bird species. Some of which would be lifers for us, they said. They were right, of course. Although we didn't know it at that time, the first bird we saw was actually a lifer. Let me explain: when I saw the bird, I assumed it was a Great Tit, which we had already seen in South Korea. As I was processing our photos about a month later, I discovered that the species found in Hong Kong is actually the Cinereous Tit! Which became a welcome addition to our lifelist.

Had I known this would be a lifer then, I would have taken better shots.
Despite the abundant presence of humanity in the park - a great majority of whom were doing their morning exercises - there was still a profusion of wild birds. One of the more common ones was the Black-collared Starling.

black-collared starling, hongkong birds

Not far from it was the Masked Laughingthrush.

masked laughingthrush

Both birds were so used to people that we had to move back to get the whole bird in the frame!

Behind one of the structures, a pair of Alexandrine Parakeets were busy building a nest.

alexandrine parakeet

The highlight of the day was the gorgeous Red-billed Blue Magpie. 

red-billed blue magpie, hongkong birds

My wife and I did a short walk towards the pier. What got our attention was the presence of a raptor soaring by the tall buildings. We were wondering what kind of prey these birds hunt in the middle of a busy city. Black Kites, we learned later, feed on garbage dumps. Despite such bad reputation, we still think it is a magnificent bird of prey.

Eventually, jet lag crept in. We had a quick lunch, returned to our hotel, and retired for the rest of the day.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Costa Rica Birding - Information and Logistics

Admittedly, our Costa Rica trip wasn't one of our best planned endeavors. Primarily because of the Turrialba volcano eruption that happened on the week of March 15-20. Secondly, we were short of time. We originally planned a road trip to Arizona and Texas but we scrapped that idea due to the time it will consume. We just went on a week-long birding in Madera Canyon/Patagonia in Arizona instead. When we got news that the Costa Rican volcano eruption had subsided, Cynthia quickly researched for a possible visit to that Central American country. Inasmuch as our main target would be the Resplendent Quetzal, she chose a place where sighting of that exotic bird would be guaranteed. That place is the town of San Gerardo de Dota up in the mountains in southern Costa Rica. Below are the information details of said trip:

We took Aeromexico from Los Angeles to San Jose. Big mistake! The airline itself is within international standards but the airport in Mexico City is the worst! Even if you are a transit passenger (like we were) you had to go through customs and immigration. That means picking up your luggage from your initial flight and going through all that inspection and bureaucracy before you can get to your connecting flight. On our return trip, the customs officials who don't speak even a smidgen of English asked me to take out all of our camera equipment (camera body, lens, chargers, etc) out of our bags. This was the only airport that did so (and we've been to many others internationally). I am normally a very placid traveler but this experience really got into my nerves. So if you plan on going to Costa Rica from the U.S. avoid any airline that has a stopover in Mexico.

We stayed at the Savegre Hotel the whole time we were in Costa Rica. We arranged for airport transfer services (the hotel is about 2-1/2 hours away from the airport) for an additional fee. Included in the daily rate are breakfast, lunch, and dinner - all buffet style. There are no other public restaurants nearby, so you have to avail of this amenity. The rooms are large and comfortable. There is no airconditioning since it gets quite cold in the evening. A small heater is even provided. There is a hot water shower so that is very convenient. 

our cottage
 The food at the restaurant is delicious. If you prefer not to use the buffet, they have a menu for ala carte dishes (but the cost is extra).

Birding is outstanding around the hotel. They offer various tours - the cost varying depending on the length. Ask the desk and they would provide all the information needed for a specific tour. We only opted for one - the Photography Garden tour which costs US$10 per person. It was not really a tour in the strictest sense of the word. Our guide, Marino Chacon, one of the owners of the hotel, took us to the "garden" where we just waited for the birds to come. He picked us up about 2 hours later. Other than that we explored the surrounding areas on our own and encountered lifer after lifer. We got our target bird barely an hour after breakfast on our first full day of birding.

Five days in Costa Rica is definitely not enough to enjoy its birds. There are many more places with different kinds of beautiful birds throughout the country. We wished we could've stayed longer and visited other birding areas.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Costa Rica Birding, Day 4 - Birding to the Hilt

All our bags were packed, we're ready to go. We will leave the hotel for the airport at around 8 am but we wanted to do some more birding before that. We even requested for a packed breakfast since we wouldn't be availing of their regular morning buffet.

At 6 am we did a quick foray into the Suenos del Bosque trail. Finally I saw the Spangle-cheeked Tanager but our photos were still not up to par. We also had better views of the aptly named Yellow-thighed Finch.

yellow-thighed finch, costa rica birds

An hour later, we were by the stream hoping once again to see the American Dipper. Guess what? We dipped again! However, as a consolation, I got photos of two more lifers - both totally unexpected. The Brown-capped Vireo,

brown-capped vireo, costa rica birds

and the Spot-crowned Woodcreeper.

spot-crowned woodcreeper

Then it was time to go. We asked Alexander, our driver (and son-in-law of the hotel owner), that if we saw a Sooty Thrush, could he stop so we could take pictures of the bird. When Alexander picked us up from the airport 5 days ago, we saw quite a number of this species along the zigzag road going to the hotel. We dared not ask him to stop so we can take pictures for two reasons: 1) It was already getting late and understandably, our driver wanted us to be at the hotel before it got dark, and 2) we assumed (incorrectly, we later discovered) that the Sooty Thrush would be as common at the hotel grounds as it was along the road.

Thankfully, Alexander agreed. Apparently we were not the only ones who made similar requests to him. It was Cynthia who first spotted the bird. We stopped but the thrush flew off. My wife saw some movement on the hillside next to her and took a photo. Good thing she did as we were to discover much later that it would be another lifer for us, the Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.

black-billed nightingale thrush

We moved on. As expected, Sooty Thrushes were common along the road and after several stops we finally were able to get pictures of a very angry bird.

sooty robin

That was the closing chapter of our wonderful trip to the Savegre River in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. It was an exhilarating experience to see so many beautiful birds in such natural surroundings. We had barely settled back in our home when I noticed Cynthia googling for other birding places in that beautiful Central American country. I smiled.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Costa Rica Birding, Day 3 - Hummertime

Cynthia and I just finished our breakfast and mulling on which route to take for our next birding venture. Perhaps he read out thoughts because Marino who was about to lead a group on another tour asked us if we have seen the Torrent Tyrannulet. 

"The what?" I asked. 

"Torrent Tyrannulet," he patiently repeated, "a small grayish bird that can always be found by the stream."

We thanked our angel and proceeded towards the tyrannulet playground. Along the way, I got distracted by a Blue-and-white Swallow picking up some nesting material on the ground.

blue-and-white swallow

My wife, on the other hand, was taking photos of another lifer, the Dark Pewee.

dark pewee

As soon as we arrived by the stream, a tiny speck of grey flew from a boulder to some dead branches. Then we realized that there was actually a pair of Torrent Tyrannulets diligently hunting for insects by the gurgling brook.

torrent tyrannulet

Having had our fill of the grey-feathered dynamos, we again tried for the American Dipper. And dipped once more. There was nothing there but those oh so common Resplendent Quetzals.

resplendent quetzal

Lunch time. We were in the middle of enjoying the delicious buffet when through the window I saw some flying raptors. Among them were some Swallow-tailed Kites! Although we've seen this species before in Florida, we were not able to get any pictures then. I grabbed my camera, bolted out the door, and managed to fire off a few documentary shots before the kites flew farther away.

After lunch, we were too stuffed to do some walking so we decided to concentrate on the hummingbirds just outside the restaurant. We did not pay much attention to them when we first arrived here since we wanted to explore the area and get as many lifers possible. They were always there anyway. Now it's hummer time and the birding was easy.

grey-tailed hummingbird male
Grey-tailed Hummingbird
magnificent hummingbird
Magnificent Hummingbird
stripe-tailed hummingbird
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
At around 3pm, we tried the path towards the Canto de la Aves once again. In the garden next to some of the cottages we saw something new. Only to realize that it was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which was not a lifer since we've seen it in the U.S. already.

Other than that, what we saw were the usual species that were quite common here. We returned to our cottage earlier than usual because we have to start packing for our 8 am departure tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Costa Rica Birding, Day 2 - Dream Walking

This was what dreams were made of - walking in a forest trail and getting lifer after lifer. Was it because the trail led to a place called Sueno del Bosque (Dreams of the Forest)?

After an early breakfast Cynthia and I headed to the trail behind our cottage. After passing by some compost area which interestingly smelled of coffee, we passed by a small grove of trees and immediately we noticed some avian activity. What at first I thought was a nuthatch because it was acting like one, turned out to be a Grey-breasted Wood Wren.

We met a group who had been birding the area much earlier than we did. They informed us that there were some quails near the cottages of the Sueno del Bosque Resort. We thanked them and headed towards that direction. Only to be distracted by what we eventually discovered as the most common species in this patch of the woods - the Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush.

Near the cottages we heard a loud, as in extremely loud, call. Then came a covey of Spotted Wood Quails running behind the bushes. These birds were so quick on their feet that we had difficulties taking  their pictures.

As I chased after them, Cynthia turned her attention to a colorful bird fighting against its image on a car window. Unfortunately the light wasn't so great that she only got a documentary shot of the Spangle-cheeked Tanager.

On the other hand, after the quails had gone deep into the woods, I turned around to follow my wife only to be stopped by another colorful bird that flew in front of me and perched  just a few meters away. It was a Collared Whitestart. 

collared redstart

While I was distracted by this bird, Cynthia got another beauty - the Flame-throated Warbler.

The flame-throated warbler was already gone when I joined her. As we walked towards the restaurant area we saw several brown birds alight on a tree. We could tell from the general shape and behavior that it was some kind of a dove. Checking our field guide we learned that it was a Ruddy Pigeon.

Other than that, the area did not seem promising bird wise, so we returned to the trail going back to our cottage. Along the way, aside from the common Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, we saw some Scintillant Hummingbirds.

Foraging on a tree trunk was a very active Ochraceous Wren.

Just before reaching our cottage, we heard some scratching on the ground next to a small waterway. Below were a pair of Chestnut-capped Brush Finches searching for insects in the leaf litter.

We stopped by our cottage because Cynthia needed to use the bathroom. I sat near the glass wall of our room facing the forest. I saw what appeared to be a big bird perched on a short stump. Looked like a quetzal - greenish but without the long tail. I looked through my long lens and almost fainted when I realized that it was an Emerald Toucanet! I took several shots (behind a glass wall, take note) at a dark bird some distance away. Footballers would call it a "hail mary" shot. When I looked at the result that night, I was glad that the photo turned out to be not so bad at all.

That afternoon was spent just around the premises of the restaurant and nothing new was added to our list. We were still thankful, of course, for what we saw that morning. It was like walking in a dream.