6 January 2017

The Land Regeneration Project - Part 1

Kaily and I planting the first tree
Since I was old enough to know the difference, I’ve despised invasive aliens. Be it plants, trees, birds or mammals - I have been on a mission to cut, chop, shoot or poison, which ever option works the best. My parents yard in Durban full of desirable Garden or Variegated Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) which naturally occur in  Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the western Pacific Ocean islands all got the chop, as did the horrid Leopard Tree (Caesalpinnea ferrea) from Brazil. Replaced with far too many very large trees, it was not long before I realised I needed a little more space to plant quite so many trees. Having relocated, it was not long before the new occupants of our former house chopped most my hard work down anyway. 

Having relocated to a small holding near Bela-Bela, I had the scope with which I had always dreamed of. Except, the ground was awfully hard and I knew nothing of the local tree and plant species. In the interim, there was a far greater issue to be dealt with, for the entire area was engulfed by ‘Queen of the Night’ (Cereus jamacaru), a tough as nuts cactus from north eastern Brazil that grows up to 5m high and produces very attractive white flowers that last a single night. The local government was concerned enough about this pest that they provided free herbicide to anyone who agreed to clear their land. A few days later, all 50 hectares of our property had been dealt with. A few years later, it was all back - none of the neighbouring farmers had any interest in dealing with it.

I took a 12 year hiatus from murdering exotic plants while living in Europe and travelling the world, before returning to South Africa to wreak more havoc on my parents garden in Bela-Bela. Having settled in Pietermaritzburg, Meg discovered that I couldn’t help myself - even with only a tiny piece of land, I was intent on destroying the rubbish and replacing it with indigenous plants. Out went the aliens and in came a pile of native Aloes, Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides), Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and even a few Tree Fuschia’s (Halleria lucida). Requireing more space for all our camping stuff, we recently moved to a leafier part of Pietermaritzburg. Here we had a far larger garden, but one without anything but grass. Perfect I thought, I could get a small forest growing here. Unfortunately, the owner of the property rather liked his grass and so my proposed forest was put on hold. I did manage to insert some Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) and Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) along the fence lines, added a few smaller trees and put a few Aloes and grass species in plastic moveable buckets. I still had to wake up to the sight of two English Oaks (Quercus robur) every morning. As much as I’d like to chop them both down, the volume of neasting bird species made this impractical. This year alone has produced new families of African Wood Owl, Green Wood Hoopoe, Violet-backed Starling & Red-throated Wryneck. The bee nest is a favourite haunt of Lesser Honeyguide and numerous other species that seek shelter here. So the English Oaks would have to stay.
Balcooa Bamboo - far bigger than you think!

I soon learnt that the property along the small river valley opposite our fence line also belonged to the estate, and here there was far more potential - at least for me. Riddled with Tickberry (Lantana camera) from Central and South America, Bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) from South America, Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) from Australia, Balcooa Bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) from Indochina as well as various invasive species of Pine tree (Pinus sp) and Blue Gum (Eucalyptus grands). In fact, I am probably only brushing the surface of what other horrid invasives lie in this valley, there is sure to be Siam Weed (Chromolaena odorata) and Syringa (Melia azedarach) amongst others. Clearing this cornucopia of rubbish has already defeated a number of efforts, both by the estate and the council. It has also been partially defeated by a nesting pair of African Crowned Eagle that didn’t take kindly to bull dozers attempting to clear a section of Lantana.

Yours truly is not about to suggest that he is single handedly going to blaze a trail of destruction through this mess and replant it all with native indigenous trees, but I am going to try and make a dent in it. Having secured permission to try my hand at this, I resolved to start slowly and methodically…

Phase one - identify a reasonably sized patch of land and gain permission to plant trees. Permission obtained in late November 2016.

Phase two - obtain suitable trees for planting. Working on a tip off from our friend Rich Lindie, we paid a visit to Val-Lea Nursery in Lincoln Meade. The owner Granton showed me around and also announced that he had sold his property and would be shutting the nursery in a few months. So I filled the cruiser a few times and collected over 40 trees in two visits. 

Phase three - prepare the land. This phase was mandatory due to the presence of a number of Bushbuck, who would happily browse the new trees before they had a chance of growing. Thus a structure around the trees was required. Those bamboo clumps would now come in useful.
Chopping to size

Phase four - over the New Years weekend, I headed down to the local equipment store and rented a chainsaw for the long weekend. Until you have stood at the bottom of a giant bamboo clump, this project would have seemed rather straight forward. This bamboo is so large, that we have actually used pieces of it for a side project - a wine rack, where each bottle comfortably fits inside the hollow of a single internodal region. (I’ll blog about this project separately). After much noise making, pulling and pushing - I was able to retrieve only a small number of the stems that I had actually cut. The remainder are still there, held together 20 metres above by interlocking branches. Having chopped the pieces into manageable lengths, we transported what amounted to a boot full (cruiser that is) of stems back to the house. Ably assisted by Meg and Kaily, the pile had to be transported into the yard for the next session of chopping. More chopping was followed by cross sectioning and sub-dividing of the stems into slats. 

Phase five - build the barriers. The first one is always the most difficult as you attempt to put into action what amounted to a simple plan. When the first attempt failed, a second was devised and implemented to a much better standard.
Kaily bringing the ingredients

Phase six - the final stage was completing the purpose of all this effort. Planting a tree. Having successfully built the first barrier, we selected the first tree for planting and headed over the road, wheel barrow, spade and pickaxe all delivered by an excitable Kaily. Having chosen a suitable spot, I cleared a little vegetation before sinking the pick axe and spade into the ground. Kaily was again on hand to deliver the first tree to site before handing down instructions on just how things should be done. A little pushing and pulling on the bamboo barrier completed the job. Tree number 1, in the ground on January 2nd 2017.

To complete the first session of the project, we have another 39 barriers to construct and trees to plant! 

Tree 1 Planted    02 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii      Monkey Thorn

After a sweaty day, I needed a lift over the road

20 metres tall may be an underestimate

Even with multiple stems cut, the bamboo simply wouldn't fall

Eventually one stem came crashing down much to Kaily's dismay!

Kai helping load the truck

A good start to the project

Building the barrier to protect from the trees from Bushbuck browsing

Kai helping carry the first tree

Barrier and tree installed

Bamboo debris on our lawn, looking across to the first tree site

9 September 2014

Larking about in the Cape

I've been on the road for months now. Tours of New Britain and Papua New Guinea followed by a few weeks with Rich Lindie on Sulawesi. Too much time in the sky, completely unnecessary, fly from northern Sulawesi to Singapore via Bali onwards to Johannesburg, back to Dubai and then Basel via London in a day. Spend a few days birding with Adrian in Switzerland, then back back to England for the rather massive UK Bird Fair. A lecture, much chatting and more standing made up another four days. Drive back to London, fly to South Africa via Dubai. This time my flights are two hours longer than normal as I am flying direct to Cape Town rather than Johannesburg.

I've been to the Cape three times, twice when I was a kid and once when I behaved like a child. Relationships are funny things, somehow with much kicking a screaming, I agreed to being dragged half way across the world for a 'weekend'. Off I went on a trans-continental flight to a country I hated, under the auspices of attending the most ridiculous religious wedding of people I didn't even know. I reverted to form not long after arriving and headed off to Kirstenbosch Gardens, never setting foot anywhere near said bunch of happy clappers until way after the extremist stuff had been puked out. The point, however, is that my world and southern African bird list had long suffered the ignominy of this birding black hole. 

With some level of wisdom, I had been appointed to guide paying clients around the Cape in a few months time, so a scouting mission was in demand. While I only needed to cover a small section of Cape for scouting purpose, I was intent of covering as much of it as possible, the rest of the trip would be for me to hammer away at the new lifers and bring some respectability to my Southern African list.

Land, customs, bags, rental, drive. Cape Town (indeed all of the Western and Northern Cape as I would discover) may as well have been another country by comparison to the rest of the South Africa shithole. The climate is different, the people are different, the scenery is different. I could wax lyrical for pages on the pros and cons of the Cape versus the rest of the bell end, but perhaps another time.

My first morning dawned with heavy rain and wind - a test for my personal 'Happy Month'. I had some shopping to do, i.e. buy a new lens. Orms Direct had the mid-range Nikon 400mm f/4.0 that I felt I could carry on my little frame. Despite the crappy weather, I was taking a strong liking this place already - been a while since I was able to use the word 'competent' in these parts. Despite the weather, I felt I needed to be outside at least trying to do something. Rooi Els it would be - a tiny upmarket seaside village that has taken to protecting a section of the lower slopes of the Capes Hottentots Holland Mountains. The prime focus of my attention here was the Cape Rockjumper. I've seen many of its allopatric brother, the Drakensberg Rockjumper in both the Lesotho and KwaZulu Natal highlands - but completing the company set was my main intention. A patch of cleared at at an opportune time, but I was easily distracted by overly confiding Southern Double-collared and Orange-breasted Sunbirds. I had no idea as to what my new lens was actually capable of doing, so I just shot everything in much the same way as the locals handle their AK's.

Pissing rain came sweeping in almost catching me unawares, but rain stopped within seconds of me reaching the car. The sun came out and it looked as though clear skies would last the rest of the afternoon. I didn't need it fortunately, a pair of Cape Rockjumper conveniently worked over a nearby boulder even allowing me to sneak up for some more 'spray and prey' shots. Most chuffed with myself, I withdrew from the scene to drink beer with Shawn Wedd, my partner in amongst other crimes, the art of fish tank building.

Day two in Cape Town started rather pleasantly with breakfast at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront. Another spot of shopping for some 'stuff' before heading off to find a warbler. It's worth noting at this juncture, what a spectacular place Cape Town actually is. To walk out of a major shopping mall, the bright sunny glare clears suddenly revealing the most incredible mountainous vista stretching from one horizon to the next. I haven't come across a city of such size and incomparable beauty anywhere else in the world. [PS: the view across the V&A waterfront towards Table Mountain would have been even better had the city planners not allowed the building of that absolutely atrocious piece of kitsch rubbish of an FNB building to forever blight the mountain.]

Having made a relatively late start, I headed off to Constantia to find the very dull but very endangered Knysna Warbler. A rather dingy individual showed, and not too soon either - twitching for boring birds has never been a personal highlight. I had one last stop to make at the rather beautiful little beach town of Kommetjie for a Cormorant before driving through and beyond Cape Town to spend a night with Shawn, Lauren and young Cooper.

Awake at a reasonable hour for the drive towards Ceres and the beginning of the Karoo! Things were about to get much more exciting than they had been up to this point. I arrived at Karoopoort well after breakfast, to find large stands of Phragmites reeds. This was perfect habitat for Namaqua Warbler, which turned out not to be a shy bird when defending territory. The common stuff was all new and some rare birds were common - I'd take them any way they came of course; White-backed Mousebirds thawing in the early sunshine, Pale-winged Starlings, Tractrac Chat and plenty of Black-headed Canary. The local farmer came over to talk birds and borrow my wheel spanner to help another driver in distress - unfortunately we were all of little use in removing some very tight wheel lugs. [If you have a blow out, don't drive on the rim...]

From here onwards it was going to be a 250km dirt road drive towards Calvinia. I stopped at a pile of rocks named Eierkop. Large-billed Lark had the distinction of being the very first lark of the trip. A dry riverbed contained both Pririt Batis and an eclipse plumaged Dusky Sunbird. With the day starting to heat up, I conspired to get lost on the longest uninterrupted road in South Africa. A missed turnoff cost me 60km's ultimately (and the fuel consumed was equivalent to about the same sum in Rand, or US$6.00 in real money).

Entering Skitterykloof, to look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler at 14:00 in the afternoon is perhaps not desirable, but I had little other choice. Scrambling up a rocky scree slope paid off when one of the heavily taped out individuals showed briefly. I made a small detour to find the frustrating Karoo Eremomela while picking up Spike-heeled and Red-capped Lark at the same time. The last two hours of dirt road driving towards Calvinia were interrupted by a number of Ludwig's Bustard flyovers and a pair of rather confiding Karoo Korhaans.

I spend most of my life in universal summer, and failed to appreciate that winter was not done in the Cape. Calvinia was bloody cold, so cold that my windscreen was frozen over and I had to wear almost every piece of clothing I had available to me. Shivering and shaking over a cup of coffee, I did my best credit card scrape of the windscreen before heading further north towards the one horse town of Bradvlei. Twenty kilometres shy of the town I pulled over for my first major Lark twitch. I started my search amongst a seemingly barren landscape pitted only by a solitary windmill. Rufous-eared Warbler was refreshingly common and I needed only a few more minutes to nail down the object of my desires, a pair of Red Lark. It must be said that this very late winter / early spring period is fantastic for Larks, most of whom start displaying an hour or so after sunrise. Karoo Scrub Robin quickly became lifer number two for the morning.

Struggle to find a place to have breakfast in the town, but am impressed to find that there is a restaurant called the 'Red Lark' - albeit closed. Breakfast complete, I'm back into the increasingly warm scrubby desert. I am now due to play a waiting game, it works like this. Find one of only a handful of water troughs, place your bets and wait for a lark to pitch up. To say that I am impatient would be an understatement, for ten minutes later I am waling the periphery trying to make things happen. Through nothing much more than pot luck, a Sclater's Lark flushes from nearby, sits on a bush, poses and disappears while I'm still fiddling with autofocus...

With more time available than expected, I try the same tactic at other waterholes. Karoo Long-billed Lark gets twitched, while a flock Namaqua Sandgrouse are in no mood to pose for me. A distant male Black-eared Sparrow-Lark is somewhat disappointing added to the list - I rather fancied getting some images of this fellow.  With all targets in the bag, it is back to Calvinia for an afternoon of working on my forthcoming Colombia checklists and rugby.

I have gotten fully into twitching mode and immediately start chopping time of my trip with ambitious driving distances. Leaving Calvinia early, I make quick time to the nearby village of Nieuwoudtville. After many kilometres of seemingly barren Karoo, it is a staggering surprise to suddenly find oneself amongst miles of green grass and numerous flowers. I had barely taken a foot out the car when the distinctive 'wing clapping' of a Cape Clapper Lark could be heard nearby. Hell it was cold though, upon closer inspection the road verges were all solidly frozen. With the sun just clearing the horizon, the larks had positioned themselves in a rather un-photographical position. I had stopped climbing over fences as of yesterday, I don't doubt that the Dutchmen up here will shoot before asking questions - and may well be further motivated to do so upon hearing my English accent in any case. One target left, which I could hear everywhere but was having rather less luck finding. Against a small, backlit ridge - I could just about discern the outline of what had to have been a Southern Black Korhaan. A quick reposition confirmed to some delight that I was indeed looking at one of the more sexy bustard beasts.

With great distances still to cover and an abject lack of traffic cops, I could 'get the hammer down'. The morning was spent driving over and down the Bokkeveld escarpment to reach the edge of the Nama Karoo at Vanrhynsdorp before turning north to Springbok. I barely paused for breath in Springbok, knocking off the remaining 140kms to the coastal town of Port Nolloth in time for lunch. Five kilometres north of the town, Barlow's Lark was ticked and photographed. Five kilometres south of town and it was much the same for Cape Long-billed and Karoo Lark. Back in the car for the 140km's back to Springbok for the night. In retrospect, I should have stayed the night in Port Nolloth and worked on my photography for a little longer.

Twitching this had become and twitching it would stay. Depart Springbok bright and early heading for the town of Pofadder. I had no idea at this point that I would still be driving some 14hours later, part of a 1000km day... Anyhow, at the moment dawn was breaking and there were more Larks to find. From Pofadder I hit the dirt road towards the South African / Namibian border town of Onseepkans on the Orange River. I was now becoming increasingly target driven. Stark's Lark - tick, photo, next. Stop, Namaqua Sandgrouse - photo, next. I took a half hour breather and spent some time trying to get photos instead of simply chasing ticks. Acacia Pied Barbet and Scaly-feathered Weaver proved decent adversaries. Then it was off to complete the 50km long dirt road. Arriving on the border town I was quick to scramble amongst the few patches of palm tree for Rosy-faced Lovebird. I spent 30minutes dashing around like a ricochet before focussing properly and finding what I was after. Though well seen, these parrots had little time for sitting still and waiting while I tried to get photographs. Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters were much keener to play ball, and my as yet uninhibited approach to taking plenty of shots resulted in a few decent action shots. Orange River White-eye responded well to tape, though it had seemed completely non-existent before that.

Birds in the bag for the day, it was now a case of seeing just how far I could get. Sociable Weaver increased exponentially just outside of Pofadder, but I could not find an African Pygmy Falcon to add to my South Africa list just yet. With the journey going well, I wondered if I might reach Kimberley by evening. I was already 2-3 days ahead of schedule, reaching Kimberley tonight would significantly shorten my plans. Then I made a spurious decision to drive up to Augrabies National Park. Ostensibly this was to twitch Short-toed Rock Thrush, though it took me a few hours to establish that not only had I dipped, but that I had no need to look for it in any case - having ticked it many years ago already. Twat - those two and a half hours had almost certainly consigned me to spending the night in Upington instead. As it happens, I went on a mission - through Upington and onwards, foot as flat as I dared - even passing the police who showed little inclination to follow me. If I was risking anything, it was driving at night with Kudu feeding on the road verges. Despite my speed and the lighting, I did have the opportunity to watch a skittish Kudu get back on 'his' side of the fence. A languid, effortless jump from a standing start over the 21 strand, three metre high fence. At least if I was on a collision coarse with one, it would probably only scratch the roof with its hooves.

Up and going early in the morning, I headed to the 'Big Hole' in down town Kimberley to find one last lifer - Bradfield's Swift. Having first mis-identified the large pile of rubble to the left of the parking lots as being 'the hole', I managed without embarrassment to find the real hole. A part of me expected it to be simply a large hole in the ground, not one ensconced, stadium style by walkways and shops. I tried entering at 07:00 to be confronted by a bevvy of what seemed to me in any case to be local 'guides'. I tried the avoidance approach, gave them a wide berth and sped up my gait. Turns out they were security guards and none too happy with me for trying to give them the slip. The 'hole' only opened at 08:00... Stuff it, I'd simply wait outside for the swifts to appear and then be off. A flutter of adrenalin was proven to be a false start - bloody Little Swifts. Ten minutes later the much larger, dull brown Bradfield's Swift made an appearance clearing the way for me to get a move on. The rest of the trip was a just an asphalt orientated haze, broken only by the bevvy of arsehole drivers that indicated I was nearing Gauteng. It takes a really 'special' kind of cock to drive an M3 or an RS4 with GP tags.

Trying to find a shortcut through the toll roads (something else that doesn't exist in the Cape), I found myself driving the increasingly poor dirt roads of Marikana village - site of a South African Police Service massacre just two years previously. Perhaps not the greatest place in the world to be gallivanting about. I exited post haste just in case I should happen to round a bend and come head to head with one Julius Malema...

And that was that. Just over 5000km of driving and R4800 spent on petrol (US$480) to see 30 lifers, 10 of which were Larks. It was also the dawning of my Love for Larks, a family I am now seriously going to chase... 33 Larks this year alone including the Critically Endangered Beesley's Lark on northern Tanzania. Better yet, I still have options on another two species - both lifers, both endemic to South Africa and both in a lot of trouble. 51 from 97 doesn't sound like much  - especially since the easy species have already been taken care of.

A foreigners guide to understanding some place names mentioned above:

Rooi Els = red Alder (species of tree)
Kommetjie = small basin (referring to the small bay area)
Karoopoort = Karoo gateway, literally a farm at the start of the Karoo.
Eierkop = egg head (small rocky outcrop in an otherwise characterless environment. Probably refers to Ostrich egg fragments found on top of the rocks, no doubt placed there by the San Bushmen.
Skitterykloof = restless / skittish gap
Calvinia = named after the French religious 'reformer' Jean Calvin. You needn't look very far to see what these religious extremists and brain dead nut cases did to South Africa under the guise of 'god'.
Brandvlei = literally marsh fire, probably best interpreted as Burnt Marsh
Nieuwoudtville = new forest town, perhaps in relation to the unexpected forests and green vegetation that is to be found here in relation to the dry and inhospitable surroundings.
Vanrhynsdorp = I'm guessing slightly, may be named after Rembrandt van Ryn
Pofadder = Puff Adder, a particularly attractive but dangerously venomous species of snake.
Onseepkans = an opportunity to wash off soap.
Upington - named after Sir Thomas Upington, who was Attorney General and then Prime Minister of the Cape Province.
Kimberley = I am going to post a large piece of 'cut and paste' here from Wikipedia. I urge you to read the entire entry on Kimberley - for it is quite fascinating. After the discovery of diamonds, the general area had no name barring the Dutch farm name of Vooruitzigt. The local prospectors termed the town 'New Rush', but the British were having none of it. Before the British would proclaim the area for the crown, there was a problem. [continued from Wiki]

The delay was in London where Secretary of State for the ColoniesLord Kimberley, insisted that before electoral divisions could be defined, the places had to receive "decent and intelligible names. His Lordship declined to be in any way connected with such a vulgarism as New Rush and as for the Dutch name, Vooruitzigt … he could neither spell nor pronounce it." The matter was passed to Southey who gave it to his Colonial Secretary J.B. Currey. Roberts writes that "when it came to renaming New Rush, [Currey] proved himself a worthy diplomat. He made quite sure that Lord Kimberley would be able both to spell and pronounce the name of the main electoral division by, as he says, calling it 'after His Lordship'.

And quite rightly so.

12 August 2014

The best job in the world?

Its generally a cold day in hell that I happen to find myself socially interacting with people other than clients. Odd job choice for a misanthropist you might say. However, on the rare occasion that I do find myself conversing with the plebs, I am invariably told that I have such a GREAT job - something to be grateful for even! Who wouldn't want to travel the world for a living? Perception and reality, an estranged couple these days. Once said individual's hamster has been motivated to make a few revolutions they realise that this is pure romanticism. And grateful for what exactly? Are you grateful for your office job? Why is my job so different that I need to be grateful anyway?

There is clearly a disconnect between the volume of countries I visit and the patently self evident travel that this involves. Sure, I see many, many countries and places, but think about how I get there. I'm not sure what image people get into their heads regarding just what it is that I do. I'm most certainly not jetting off to the Caribbean to lie on a beach for 6 weeks. I facilitate, I teach - ultimately I make things happen so that my clients have a seamless and enjoyable holiday. Unlike most tour reps, guides, operators - whatever term you wish to use, I don't specialise in a country or region, but a subject. I never get to sit back and relax once I know one country - for we travel to over 100 countries and offer 200 different tours covering over 10 000 species of birds and a few thousand mammals.

Most people like more than a little routine, call it societal conformity - the only thing routine about my life is change (and waking up 04:00 almost every morning - birds get up early). I have no base, no home, no country, too many nationalities and even more identities. For years I have spent my life living out of a suitcase. The most consecutive days I have spent in one location this year is 13 days. I spend almost all my life in the 'summer' of the world's tropics. Its hot, humid, full of biting/stinging organisms and rains a lot. Things you take for granted are a complete waste of my life - I don't own a TV, furniture, cannot have any pets and probably shouldn't involve myself in any form of relationship. Aside from the incredible wildlife I bear witness to, the highlight of my day/week/month is getting a half decent internet connection and a hot shower. Grateful, yes - for the things you take for granted.

Diatribe, sure - but this is far from being a general whinge about my life.  This is in fact a lifestyle that suits me perfectly - and I love it. So, do you really want to do my job?

Flights : 2014
Basic flight paths for the year - single lines like Johannesburg (JNB) to Brazil (GRU) are 4 flights, not 1!

By the time this year is over, I'll will have effectively flown around the world 4 times.

57 flights, of which :

18  Inter-continental (i.e. Africa to South America - long flights!)
17  Intra-continental (i.e. within Africa - medium length flights)
22  Domestic            (i.e. within South Africa)

Total flying time     : 215 hours (9 days)
Distance Travelled : 152 192 kilometres (94 568 miles)

Average Flight       : 2 670km (3.5 hours)

Countries : 2014

Total visited : 21

I spent 9 days/nights inside a plane. Otherwise I spent the following nights per country.
(X) signifies number of transits.

126  South Africa
 (2)  Netherlands
 (6)  Panama
 21  Guatemala
 17  Dominican Republic
 16  Jamaica
 21  Cuba
 (2) USA
   1  Lesotho
 08  Kenya
 14  Tanzania
 02  Singapore
 25  Papua New Guinea
 13  Indonesia
 (2)  UAE
 06  Switzerland
 05  UK
 (4)  Brazil
 17  Paraguay
 49  Colombia
 16  Ecuador

Boarding Passes for July and August 2014

Highlights : 2014

Guatemala (Jan)

Lago Atitlan, Coffee fincas, Volcanic highlands, hiking up Volcan San Pedro 3 times and getting to grips with one of the world's most impressive birds, Horned Guan. Mayan architecture at Tikal.

Jamaica (Feb)

Home of Bob Marley, Rastafarians and a pile of endemics birds. Managed one decent shot of a
Red-billed Streamertail - smashing Hummingbird.

Dominican Republic (Feb)

Another Caribbean island, more great birds and equally friendly people. Tragically getting destroyed by the people of Haiti. Collected the full set of endemics over the course of two visits.

Cuba (March)

Third of the four Greater Antillean islands and had been one of my favourite countries. Nailed all the usual endemics, including this Cuban Emerald.

Tanzania & Kenya (May)

Highest mountains in Africa, largest mammal concentrations in the world. Too many plaudits - must visit destination. 

Papua New Guinea (July)

Remote, multiple Bird-of-paradise species, 90% virgin forest. Difficult logistics, expensive and mostly inept. Nothing much else to be said.

Sulawesi, Indonesia (August)

With almost 100 endemic birds, Sulawesi is a mega bird destination. Throw in some Critically endangered mammals and particularly good spicy food. Great-billed Kingfisher

Still to come

Switzerland (August)

Bird Fair, United Kingdom (August)

South Africa (August)

Paraguay (September)

ABA Conference, South Africa (October)
Colombia (November & December)

Ecuador (December)

20 October 2013


Four years ago, I landed in Costa Rica for my first taste of Neotropical birding. As any birder could testify to, there is no ‘easing’ into the Neotropics. I had enough trouble identifying the birds I could comfortably see, without digging for the the skulkers. I had over this short time seen enough to be certain of two things - finding Resplendent Quetzal was tricky and I may as well stop birding without some lengthy trips to the Neotropics. Last year  I packed away my life in Europe and returned for an entire years worth of birding in South America. 

With liberty to move at will, I set about tackling the difficult and elusive species first, on the assumed basis that the commoner stuff would follow. Spinetails, Woodcreepers, Tyrant flycatchers, other flycatchers, Antbirds, Tapaculos. My introduction was made all the more difficult due to the fact that Argentina is still not in possession of a decent field guide. 

As one is bound to do, a favourite family or grouping of birds soon emerges. Perhaps it was on one of my numerous forays through my digitised field guides that it came to me, perhaps not, either way I chose a family that contained a little over 50 species (on a continent that plays host to 3500+). All the more bizarre, I had not even seen a representative of the family yet!. My colours had been nailed squarely to the Grallariidae mast. Long-legged, short-tailed, drab, a little bit squat with large dark eyes and a generally repetitive, somewhat haunting voice. Practically tied to the ground, the Antpitta family are for all money, the birding worlds version of ghosts. Living predominantly in the mist and cloud shrouded forests of the Andes, they move stealthily about seemingly intent on avoiding peering binoculars and cameras.

Over the course of the last year I managed to lay my eyes on some of them, my camera lens on only a fraction. I have sat for hours waiting, crawled through wet leaves and mud, route marched to high altitude bamboo forests and for the most part failed miserably in my quest to get but a glimpse. They certainly aren’t overly attractive or even particularly rare for the most part, but they are without doubt my most sought after and equally frustrating birds in South America. 

The short excerpts below reflect some of my successes and failures. Some of the text was originally published on this blog. Many of the photos are courtesy of some of the great team of birders and photographers I work with at Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures :

Adam Riley
Luis Segura
Forrest Roland

Variegated Antpitta, Grallaria varia
22/08/2012. Urugua-i Provincial Park, Misiones, Argentina

Having spent the better part of two days searching the Misiones forests, I finally connected with my first Antpitta - 53 days after the tour started.

Just then, a bird flushed off the path. Must have been a thrush, other than doves they are the only things that sit on paths. The bird has landed where I can still see it though, even if behind plenty of tangles. My tongue almost falls out of my mouth, I want to do a jig, I really want to get a photo too - but there is no chance in hell I am going to get an image. My long sought after Variegated Antpitta, at 14:00 in the afternoon. I sit down on the path and hope that it might consider coming back out to do whatever it was doing when I disturbed it. After 20 minutes my patience ebbs, it is clearly not coming back out. A few yards down the path I find the likely reason for the bird being in the open like this - a thick trail of large ants.  

Tick number 1, in the bag.

Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Hylopezus nattereri
25/08/2012. San Sebastian de la Selva, Misiones, Argentina

My next Antpitta would not require another 53 days of birding, only 3 on this occasion. This was an unintended tick, for the purpose of my twitch this morning was a different beast - the Spotted Bamboowren. I’d win on both accounts thanks to my own persistence and Ramon Moller Jensen, top bird photographer and owner of San Sebastian de la Selva.

Breakfast at 07:00 before Ramon was due to take me off to find Spotted Bamboowren. Filled up on coffee and then got an unexpected bonus, there would be no long walk to the top of the property, Ramon and I jumped onto an ATV and headed up at speed. Arriving at the site, Ramon hauled out two very large machetes - just in case some trail clearance was required. We headed along a small trail, but machetes were not required. Just before reaching the Bamboowren site, Ramon heard a Speckle-breasted Antpitta calling. Out came the mobile phone and he started some playback. We were in luck, our bird was interested and crept over to see who was invading his patch. Not the greatest view, but as anyone that has ever seen an Antpitta will testify, good views are nigh near impossible. Happy to add a second Antpitta in a matter of days.

This was starting to feel a little easy.

Argentina had only one species of Antpitta left to get, and I would get it at Calilegua National Park where everyone else seems to find it easily. I had already spent an entire day and afternoon searching for this apparently common species. It would happen though, my last morning confined me to defeat.

Another early start. I would not be cycling today, only walking for 5-6km’s up the road and along the river. Unfortunately, I was unable to add the list - if there were White-throated Antpittas here, they certainly weren’t making their presence known. I resigned myself to dipping on a host of species and shifted back to camp.

A few months later I was starting to cycle my way out of Bolivia.
Villa Tunari sits just over 200masl, by the end of the day I am expecting to reach 1900masl. Once I get to the 1200masl level, the cloud forest lives up to it’s name. Thick cloud and rain make the riding conditions treacherous. I pass a recently crashed truck which somehow managed to make a 90 degree exit on one of the few straight pieces of road. 

The rain intensifies, but onward and upward I go. I hear a familiar call bleating out of a roadside bush. A little thought before I check the calls on my iPhone. This is a bird I last chased in north western Argentina some months back. I get the playback going and within a few minutes manage to obtain a rather silhouetted view of a White-throated Antpitta. For all the hours that I walked around the beautiful Yungas of Calilegua National Park trying to find this bird, it shows on the side of a busy motorway in blinding cloud and heaving rain! 

Undulated Antpitta, Grallaria squamigera

Bosque Ampay sits above the town of Abancay, a place of towering mountains and deep valleys in the Chalhuanca Valley. My first attempt at Undulated Antpitta came a few hours after some of the most crushing days I had spent in the saddle.

Up early for my trip to Bosque Ampay. It is Saturday, the streets deserted at 05:45. It only takes a minute or so to find a taxi. Some banged up old Toyota, but it manages the steep uphill out of town as well as the rutted climb up to the entrance of Ampay. There isn’t much to see outside except a vertical cliff face in front of me - the path goes straight up it. After all the climbing I have done on the bike, my legs are not looking forward to doing it all again on foot.

I take slowly to the task at hand, the trail continuing onwards and upwards at a crushingly painful gradient. After 90 minutes I reach the first dense Podocarpus forest of the climb. Undulated Antpitta calls from various places, but none near to the paths.

I would return to Abancay on two further occasions with Adrian. We would again hear them calling, but no visuals were ever had.

Bay Antpitta, Grallaria capitalis
19/03/2013. Paty Trail, Huanuco, Peru

Adrian and I had walked a good section of the Paty Trail, all the time aware that the longer we walked the more painful the climb back up would be. We pause at one of the few clearings, the base of a massive electricity pylon. The opening allows some unhindered birding and we take full advantage.

During a lull in the birding, we hear a mournful call emanating from a nearby clump of trees. Neither of us can pick it, but it sounds like an Antpitta. Not overly useful as there are a number of species here. I run through the playlist quickly and decide that this is a Bay Antpitta.

With camera and bins ready, I start the process of luring the little fellow in - it’s a bit like fishing, sometimes they bite - mostly they don’t. The bird does come in, we both manage half obscured views from 6feet. There won’t be any images of this chap, but it is another good species in the bag. It only occurs to me now that this is Adrian’s very first Antpitta - a Puruvian Endemic to boot.

Pale-billed Antpitta, Grallaria carrikeri
Rusty-tinged Antpitta, Grallaria przewalskii

This will go down as one of the hardest birding days I have yet encountered. It will also be remembered as one of my most disappointing days out, despite being a mostly successful effort.

Another early start to get up the Rio Chido Trail. The trail head was only three kilometres from town, but the hike itself was going to be savage. We began our climb at 06:00 and did not reach the bamboo forests until gone midday. A haphazard affair with many wrong turns and even more stops. We paused to rest and breathe every 50-60 metres for the first few hours. The mountain crushed us for most of the day. At least we were adding the odd species, some of which were particularly important. However, the major target (Pale-billed Antpitta) of the climb did not make an appearance, not even a squeak.

There was little consolation to be had from any of the other Antpittas or Tapaculos. We had to be satisfied with our haul, which admittedly did include Lulu’s Tody Flycatcher at 3 feet... The walk down only took a few hours, while easier on the lungs, it was horrendous on the knees and ankles.

I would learn later that a much easier and more accessible site for the Pale-billed had been found, but it was too late for either of us to tackle it. 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla

Adrian and I had only just put our aching legs and disappointment of the Pale-billed Antpitta effort behind us when we got rather lucky. While driving the Leimebamba road I stopped for a short bird break. Ostensibly, I had pulled over near a large bush of flowers to look for Hummingbirds when we heard a familiar call. Chestnut-crowned Antpitta had spouted a few notes yesterday without display, today it was close - very close.

We tried some playback without success. The bushes in front of us contained the bird - we just could see it, despite their practically barren state. Adrian got onto the bird but was unable to guide me onto it. In fact it took a good 5 minutes of relocating the bird before I saw it. Perhaps a small amount of redemption after yesterdays efforts.

Stripe-headed Antpitta, Grallaria andicolus
02/04/2013. Huascaran National Park, Yungay, Peru

The redemption would continue for us a week later with some of the most uninterrupted views of an Antpitta I had experienced to date. Huascaran National Park in the Ancash mountains of Peru has probably the largest undivided polylepis forest I have witnessed in all of South America.

We would find only one Stripe-headed Antpitta - but it would also sit high above ground level posing for photos. I could probably have gotten an autograph had I thought to offer the wee fellow a pen and paper. We would see this bird again a few weeks later at Abra Malaga. _________________________________________________________________

Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria rufula
Tawny Antpitta, Grallaria guitensis
Crescent-faced Antpitta, Grallaricula lineifrons
19/05/2013. Termes de Papallacta, Ecuador

I spent just over two weeks in Ecuador, and it rained on every single day of my trip. I had had to give up on birding the Amazonian lowlands as well as Guacamayos Ridge. Despite the freezing conditions and light drizzle, the break in complete cloud cover allowed me to bird the patchy forests above the Termes de Papallacta. The rain and cloud would make the afternoon miserable, but I was able to get good views of two new Antpittas in the space of a few minutes. While the Rufous Antpitta played hard to see, the Tawny was more easily located. I ran out of luck trying to find Crescent-faced Antpitta, probably one of the hardest of the family to see anywhere. I would see Rufous and Tawny again - on both occasions I would get face to face, out in the open, completely uninterrupted views. More remarkably, neither of the birds were fed or habituated - nor did I have to tape them in.

A few weeks later I would get some of my best views of an Antpitta. While trudging about Nevado del Ruiz, a huge volcano in central Colombia - I came across the most extroverted of Tawny Antpittas. 

Giant Antpitta, Grallaria gigantea
Moustached Antpitta, Grallaria alleni
llow-breasted Antpitta, Grallaria flavotincta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula flavirostris

The Paz family did something remarkable many years ago. Firstly, they turned their backs on logging and then they started feeding antpittas. The story is well written and widely known about (see more here - Paz de las Aves website). I certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity to bag some ‘easy’ antpittas. 

At least thats the theory. True to form, there was a hitch. Maria (Giant) was sitting on eggs and Willie (Yellow-breasted) wouldn’t play ball either. In the end, Angel did manage to coax out two other species : Moustached (Jose) and Ochre-breasted (Shakira). I don’t particularly care how many trips I need to find Maria and Willie - I’ll certainly be back.

Shakira, the Ochre-breasted Antpitta is so named due to it's 'dance'. Apparently this 'Shakira' person is a dancer? 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla
Bicolored Antpitta, Grallaria rufocinerea
Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
Brown-banded Antpitta, Grallaria milleri
04/06/2013. Rio Blanco, Manizales, Colombia

I’ve mentioned five species of Antpitta available at Rio Blanco, these are just the regulars that visit the worm feeders - 10 have been recorded in this small forested reserve protected by Manizales Water. Colombia fortunately has a number of protected areas due to water security concerns. The down side is that these are not run as tourist areas - meaning bureaucracy! What should have been a mere 4-5 Antpitta species formality turned to dust. 

I received little help from the local governmental body, given that I arrived in Manizales on a Sunday (Monday was a Public Holiday) - I suppose this was not all that surprising. I decided to try my luck and go to the gate in any case. This approach did not work however as they refused to open the gate without a permit. Given the time constraints and days of the week, I was not able to visit the reserve and went to Nevado del Ruiz instead.

One shouldn’t bank on anything in advance - but I felt rather gutted to miss out on such a large spread of ‘easy’ Antpittas. All I have as comfort is the knowledge that when I return in November 2014 - my contact that proved rather unhelpful is actually going to be my guide here!

Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
05/06/2013. Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve, Jardin, Colombia

Having overfed on Antpittas during my short tour through Ecuador, I had to wait a little to find my next twitches. My trip to the Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve had nothing to do with Antpittas on the surface - I was here to see the Yellow-eared Parrot, the entire known population isolated to this tiny patch of forest around the town of Jardin. Having had an excellent mornings birding with the resident guide Edwar Guarin, allowed us to focus on the less targeted species. Edwar managed to pull out two new Antpitta’s for me, although he was more excited about the Andean Pygmy Owl we saw!

White-bellied Antpitta, Grallaria hypoleuca
09/06/2013. Arrierito Antioqueno Reserve, Anori, Colombia

I was starting to get a little better at finding Antpittas by this point of the trip - what a pity I had been so poor at it in Peru! This ProAves reserve of Arrierito Antioqueno was again not high on my Antpitta list - my main focus was on the other 9 country endemics found here. I would get all but one as well as picking up White-bellied Antpitta. I fully expected to get better views of this bird elsewhere, but it turned out to be my only success. 

Rusty-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula ferrugineipectus
Santa Marta Antpitta, Grallaria bangsi
Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria spatiator (rufula)
25/06/2013. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

My tour of South America was coming to a end, and I had left the best for last. The isolated Andean mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta host 21 species found no-where else on the planet. A number of others will soon be added to that list, including the isolated Rufous Antpitta sub-species.

I initially found success on the lower slopes near Minca. The Grallaricula Antpittas are awfully small, one might even say cute. The Rusty-breasted’s didn’t dance for me like their more southerly cousin, the Ochre-breasted. Further up the mountain I locked into both the Santa Marta and soon to be elevated Santa Marta Rufous Antpittas. It was back to form for both these birds, barely visible among the tangled foliage. As I rode down the mountain for the last time, I had seen the last of my favourite family. In a few weeks time I would have flown from Colombia to Spain, England, Germany, Dubai and finally South Africa. As I sit typing this final entry, I am conscious of the days ticking away until I land in Colombia again - this time I’ll have access to Rio Blanco and another hatful of species.

The final tally then, I have recorded 17 of currently described 51 species. Tried and dipped on a further 15 species meaning I have not even given myself a chance with a further 19! Quite unbelievable given the vast distances and areas I covered in the Andes looking for the little buggers. Lots more work required and hopefully many more photos to come. Bring on Colombia 2014.