The 2016 Christmas Bird Count kicked off on the morning after Boxing Day, where a small group of ten avid birdwatchers gathered in the blue predawn light around the entrance to the Aripo Livestock Station. A well known birding hotspot for locals and foreigners alike, it issued a notice some weeks prior that it’d be closed to birdwatchers until further notice. Not entirely certain why this was so, but the CBC Coordinator assured me that all names and license plates were forwarded to the relevant authorities, and permission was granted for us to perform the census on that day. But knowing my luck, we sort of expected that all will not go as planned. So when we got there and I went up to the security guard…let’s just say that we had a good laugh and I began making arrangements for the group to relocate.
Eventually, the guard heard a couple names being called – which was done deliberately of course – sometimes all people need to know is the fact that you know the names of their superiors – and this spurs even the hardiest of creatures into action. Anyway, suddenly he galvanized into action and motioned that I come with him to see the Corporal on duty. I explained our situation to the Corporal, who also knew nothing of the arrangement. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the time and expecting the sun to pop into the sky at any moment. Our best chance with some of the more reclusive birds such as bitterns would be to get in position as early as possible. But the good Corporal decided to check the notice board, and there it was, pinned neatly on the communal notice board, the letter sent in by our Coordinator with everyone’s names and information. Hahaha. At least the group had already started to record numbers – Black Vultures were sliding across the sky en masse. By the time we mobilized to drive into the compound there were already 47 Black Vultures on record! A lone Yellow-hooded Blackbird zipped past, and we were finally on our way inside.
Unfortunately, no bitterns on the way in this time, but we weren’t daunted in the slightest. Recording common species like Blue-black Grassquits kept the scribe busy enough I’d say. (Thank you, dear scribe)
We stopped to survey the fields briefly, then noticed a herd of approximately 200 water buffalo notice us, and begin to gallop toward us. I’m certain that at least someone (besides myself) was questioning the integrity of the small fence that stood between us and these massive beasts. Aside from the Black Vultures that were literally coming from everywhere, groups and groups of Orange-winged Amazons were also chattering excitedly as they fluttered eastward. It’s always funny how as soon as they alight in a tree, a silence overtakes them. This pair stood silently on a nearby tree before the sun fully emerged.
As the morning wore on, the parrots never ceased, they just kept coming. Usually travelling in pairs, can you spot the second Orange-winged in this image?
It was definitely a beautiful morning, and we noticed a particularly high density of Monarch Butterflies in and around every patch of flowers. I’m accustomed to seeing one at a time, so seeing so many of them was quite enjoyable. There were so many that they’d often bicker and dive bomb each other while feeding.
We decided to take a quick stroll into one of the side roads at the edge of the forest, and the reward was all the way at the end of the road – a gorgeous male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater! Well, I didn’t even see it, let alone get a picture. But the mission today was a group mission, so the success of one means the success of all. Also at the end of this road was a bird that may not have the flair of the aforementioned, but is still special in its own right – a Solitary Sandpiper. I attempted to explain the difference between this and some of its relatives, but I don’t think some of the folks were too impressed! Its camouflage is its saviour, as these birds spend a lot of time in open fields and are prime targets for large falcons like the Peregrine. 10 points if you can find this bird within five seconds.
On the way back out, a female Barred Antshrike decided to come out in the open. Pairs of this species had been tantalizing us for some time, calling from dense bush, disappearing and reappearing every few seconds.
Pressing on, we reached a clearing in the forest where I had heard some activity. Good thing I stopped too, instantly the scribe was made busy with Violaceous Euphonia, both species of manakins, Forest Elaenia and a few Turquoise Tanagers in the mix as well. By this time, it was getting hotter and my mind had already drifted to wondering what birds of prey we’d be able to spot.
While the group was still busy with the frenzy going on in the treetops, I faintly heard a vaguely familiar call in the distance. Instantly I began walking toward the source of the sound, all the while racking my brain over and over trying to match the call with the proper bird. Finally, it hit me. Grey-headed Kite! And there it was, soaring in the distance. Why was it calling? There were two – calling to each other as they rode the thermals higher and higher. I had only seen this bird a couple of times previously – one a rehabilitated bird that was kept as a pet that ended up developing a terrible roundworm infection. Anyway, it was rather fulfilling to enjoy this bird as it was meant to be, wild and free.
And the day got hotter. And hotter. Keeping our eyes in the sky, we recorded Common Black Hawk as well as two Zone-tailed Hawks before a pair of Short-tailed Hawks made a close fly-by, this one never took its eyes off me as it glided effortlessly over. At this point, we also recorded our first Turkey Vulture for the day. How odd. More than 300 Black Vultures and finally, almost to midday, one Turkey.
Unfortunately it seemed like most of the forest birds were taking it easy in the heat of the day, apart from a single Collared Trogon I only heard faintly in the distance. We eventually decided to remove ourselves from the sweltering heat and investigate something edible. On the way out, a cloud graciously blocked the sun just in time for me to work with this Savannah Hawk. These long-legged raptors are true staples of almost every open field. Their long naked legs allow them enough working space to tackle their favourite prey – snakes.
By this time it was already past midday and our group had dwindled to half its original size, but patience is always rewarded, on the way out we recorded one Pinnated Bittern that slipped away very quickly – but not too quickly for our trusted scribe – and a few Grassland Yellow Finches – an Aripo specialty that we had missed on the way in. The harsh midday light was unfortunate and nowhere near the beautiful soft light I photographed this species in for the previous bird count, but hey, this one’s for science.
And that was that for that. We were too hungry to continue, so we called it a day. Stay tuned for Episode 2, the afternoon session!