Wednesday, 18 February 2015

How to Choose a Birding Tour by Markus Lilje

There are so many birding tours out there to choose from that it can be totally overwhelming to figure out which one is right for you. Recently there have also been a number of countries and regions that have become more accessible, making the choice even tougher. Here we will take you through some of the factors that are often considered important and that could make a difference between having a great tour and going back for more, or being disappointed because it was not what you had expected. A lot of the parameters or details of a tour are already decided before the tour even starts and you can therefore be fairly sure that a tour is well suited to you or not.

Some of the first questions to ask yourself are as follows: why are you interested in taking part in birding tours; what do you want from them; and what do you feel is less important for you in terms of ultimate deciding factors? If you are mainly interested in increasing your lifelist, seeing a very large number of species and targeting endemics, you are likely to focus on a different range of tours than if you are mainly interested in experiencing a different country through birding, or if you are also interested in a combination of birds, mammals, scenery and culture. Keep in mind that tours often tend to attract people that have a similar aim, although there is always some discrepancy of course. Once you have a good grip on your own motivations there are many other variables that you should also consider.

On our tours we try to find as many species as possible on our particular routes, as long as it is reasonable (from a time and travel perspective) and the tour does not become too rushed in the process. This means that all our tours will have a variable degree of birding intensity, because there are different numbers of species that need to be found and variation of difficulty in finding those species. In Madagascar for example there are not a huge number of species, but many of them are very hard to find, meaning that much time and effort is often required to locate the birds we are searching for. We spend time looking for the species that are considered important, trying to limit the degree to which this negatively impacts upon the rest of the tour. This means that on most tours we find a good balance between seeing a large number of species, and still ensuring a certain level of comfort and enjoyment for the participants when this is possible.

Icebergs are an added attraction on cruises to polar regions.
Time of year can be a big issue as most people are not able to simply pack up their bags at any time, and most countries have a fairly defined period when the conditions are best suited to birding or travelling in general. We always attempt to pick the best time of year for getting the highest species total or the maximum number of endemic and special species, which is not necessarily when most species are in the area, but this also depends on climatic conditions for example. On some occasions it also makes sense to take advantage of low-season rates as tour costs can often be reduced without negatively impacting on the number of species we expect to find. Some countries should just not be visited at certain times of the year and we would even advise against it on private tours, while others, where the endemics are the important targets for instance, can be productive during a larger part of the year. Here are some examples of good areas to visit in different months: the Indian subcontinent, Colombia, Chile, Myanmar, South Africa, Antarctica and Ethiopia from November to February. February is also good for the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Morocco, while we mainly visit Cuba a little later on in March, since this is the best time for passage migrants. March and April are good for Cameroon and Bhutan, and our Ecuador and Philippines tours occupy this part of the calendar too. Our preferred time in East Africa is April and May in Kenya and Tanzania; towards the end of this time is when we also head into Eastern Europe and Mongolia. Uganda is best a little later towards June and July, which is when the season also begins in Papua New Guinea, and Spitsbergen is more navigable. Around August is great for Gabon, Sulawesi and Brazil, while the Namibia (including our Namibia, Okavango & Victoria Falls Overland Safaris) season begins around this time as well. September is great for much of South America, including Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. Moving into October, South Africa, Australia and Madagascar come into their most productive periods as we enter the austral summer again. Remember that this is just a brief indication and many areas are good during a variety of seasons and can be visited at other times as well.  

One of the first things that is often looked at when deciding on a tour is its length and how well it fits in with any other plans that you may have. We often try to start a tour towards the end of a weekend, giving people time to reach the destination if they leave on a Friday evening or Saturday, thereby reducing the number of leave days required in order to do the tour. Most tours are also just less than 2 to 3 weeks long (with exceptions), depending on the destination, again allowing participants to arrive home on a weekend. Most of our guests prefer longer tours, as the cost and effort of distant travelling warrants this, rather than shorter tours that require proportionately relatively longer travel times. Additional options for those wanting to extend their experiences are our extensions, which are offered before and/or after many tours, targeting something different in a similar region that isn’t possible on the main tour; as well as making the most of the time and costs involved in travelling to distant destinations.

This gets us to another very important factor, namely cost. Of course, there is generally a range of tour operators offering tours to certain regions at widely varying prices. Things that can be easily overlooked however are factors such as the standard of accommodation used on tour, extra excursions such as boat rides, group size, how professional, experienced and specialized the guide is, and whether there are local guides or assistants on the tour that will assist with logistics and any language problems if these should surface. You might find a very cheap tour operator somewhere and then be disappointed to discover that you missed so many of the potential highlights because shortcuts were taken or the guide had limited birding knowledge, for example. Some destinations are also just more expensive than others, where again you would have to decide what you most want out of your trip. An important consideration when selecting a tour is potentially the number of tours that you might be able to do in the longer term. For example your recommended choice of an African tour would be different if your plans were to only visit Africa once compared to a birder who intends to make several visits to different parts of Africa over the course of their international birding time.

Something that goes along with the two previous factors is ease of travel to the tour starting point – more distant tours are usually more time-consuming and expensive to get to, while you may also need a day or two to recover from the jetlag if there is a significant time zone difference. In some cases it is possible to combine tours so that you can then take full advantage of being in that particular area; for example we offer a variety of back-to-back tours to the Indian subcontinent, Europe and the Caribbean that follow on from each other for this very purpose. This simultaneously reduces your travel costs and relative travel time to get from one particular tour to the next. 

Some forms of transport are more traditional than others.
Some people have specific birds they would particularly like to see, or groups of birds or families they are really interested in ‘chasing’. Doing an entire tour for a single bird may not be worthwhile, but looking at the distribution of the species in question and seeing what else is available within the region often means that you are able to find a tour that combines a number of other interesting features as well, which would then make it an option more worthwhile for you to pursue.

How good are your birding skills? Some destinations, especially those that include visiting many forest sites, require a lot of patience, effort and skill if you expect to see most of the birds that are possible in the area. Some birders do struggle to pick up movement for example, making it very difficult for them in these tougher birding situations. Other destinations however offer more open habitats and/or more confiding birds, Ethiopia, Northern India and Kenya are examples of easier birding locations. Here the birding can be a lot less demanding and many people derive more pleasure and less frustration from such tours.
Short-legged Ground Roller is a bird that often requires much time and effort.

On some tours there are very few physical demands for participants, such as in East Africa, where much of the birding occurs in national parks, where you may not leave your vehicle due to potential danger from wild animals. If, however, you wish to look for Horned Guan in Guatemala, or Mount Cameroon Speirops in Cameroon, you would need to put in a great deal of effort to have a fair chance of seeing these particular birds. Long driving days can also be quite demanding physically, although this can often not be avoided on comprehensive birding tours where the object is to see as many of the region’s species or endemics.

Related to the above point is the intensity level of a tour, with some being very intense, including birding activities from predawn until dusk and often beyond, whereas others have several fairly relaxed days or breaks built in to the itinerary. Often some segments can be left out; for example, if you are not interested in taking part in a night walk, this can be a way to reduce the intensity of a tour, but many people are worried about missing special sightings and will try to minimize the experiences that they miss on any trip. Whether you sit down for every meal or take packed meals that you eat ‘on-the-fly’ can also heavily influence how much birding time is available every day. Since Rockjumper is the largest international birding tour company we are often able to offer tours with various levels of intensity to the same country. For instance, our shorter Highlights tours aim to provide a less intensive experience designed around less driving distances, comfortable lodges and more relaxed time in the field. Our Comprehensive tours are aimed at the keen birder and are usually slightly longer tours that aim for as many of the accessible endemics and as high a bird count as possible but still minimizing single night stays and allowing for some down time. At the other end of the scale, our Mega tours are designed for the hardcore birder and generally aim for record-breaking bird numbers, such as our Colombia Mega 1,000 Bird Tour, or every possible endemic. These tours are faster paced with long days in the field and regular one-night stops.

Comfort is also an important factor for many of our participants, and is a major deciding factor in the choice of a particular tour. On certain tours we can offer high quality accommodations and mostly smooth roads, such as in our home country South Africa and also in Thailand for example. However, this is most definitely not the case in many destinations, where conditions necessitate some unavoidable discomfort in order to seek our target species. The same can be said for meals; in India for example, where much of the food is spicy hot and fantastic if you enjoy that kind of cooking, but possibly a little monotonous (and fiery!) if you don’t. Many of the less developed countries often provide food that is not nearly as diverse as you may be used to, and this can sometimes be seen as rather problematic if you are a particularly fussy eater.

One of our less comfortable modes of transport.
Whilst discussing difficult tours, we do advise our tour participants to do the toughest tours first. One is more likely to enjoy tours that are physically demanding or require rugged travelling and camping when you have higher physical fitness and mobility levels. We consider Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and Angola as some of these countries that potential tour participants should consider doing sooner rather than later in the birding careers. At the same time we also advise birders to prioritize destinations where the natural environment is being degraded at a rapid rate and birds becoming more endangered. For instance the Philippines, Madagascar and parts of Indonesia should all be very high on an international birder’s priority list as sadly these countries are rapidly losing their endemic biodiversity.

While our tours obviously target mainly birds and we attempt to see as many as we can, there are always numerous other attractions that we would never ignore – and these often significantly add to your travel experience and may even be amongst the top tour highlights. The obvious secondary target on most tours is seeing the area’s mammals, be it in Africa’s big game reserves where this could hardly be avoided, or searching for Tiger and Indian Rhino in India, Jaguar and Giant Anteater in Brazil, or many smaller and less well-known species in other parts of the world. On our India tour we also spend time at the fabled Taj Mahal in Agra, while in Bhutan visiting a few of the spectacular Dzongs (Buddhist temple-fortresses) is a highlight for many of our guests. Egypt’s incredible archaeological sites obviously form a significant component of our tour through this ancient land, and have been a huge attraction for millennia. During travel days in particular there are often ample opportunities to to experience some of the local culture, although there may be times when we specifically target this aspect of travelling.

Cultural attractions are an added bonus on some tours.
Many people enjoy the challenge of bird and wildlife photography, which can also be pursued on all of our tours. One thing that must be borne in mind however is that Rockjumper’s tours are intended primarily at finding and seeing the birds, rather than photographing them. Once we have found a species we will therefore stay around for the amount of time required for the group to adequately view and enjoy the bird. Photographers are welcome to use this opportunity to take images, and if done in a respectful way this can be a great enhancement to any tour, but only if the other participants (and the birds!) are not disturbed. Some tours are much better suited for bird photography than others, with open country destinations (eg South Africa, much of Northern India, Tanzania, Namibia and Brazil’s Pantanal for example) offering far more photographic opportunities than forest areas and countries where birds are still hunted (Papua New Guinea and the Philippines for example), thereby allowing a closer approach.

Another factor that people either seek out or try to avoid is a tour where you may experience a sense of adventure and discovery – be it due to uncertainties with weather, or getting to places where few other birders have ever visited. Some countries certainly offer this, such as Angola and remote areas of Indonesia, where ours tours have made significant discoveries and conditions can also be challenging. Papua New Guinea has a number of sites where you really feel like you are the only humans in that particular patch of remote forest, while a tour to Antarctica and South Georgia certainly visits some really remote places. Many countries do offer the necessary comforts that make our tours there seem less adventurous, where we stay closer to standard tourist routes such some of our tours to South or East Africa or Europe, although even here we get to experience off-the-beaten-track areas, which are just another aspect of the general birding experience.

Each tour leader is different and has his style of structuring the tour, and different styles will work better with some personalities than with others. This can certainly have an impact on your tour, although experienced leaders will have the necessary know-how to deal with most personalities and situations. Sometimes it can be a good idea to see what experiences other birders have had travelling with a certain leader, though this could never be considered totally reliable. Although every company has a certain idea of how they run a tour in general, there is no way of making every tour the same, even if run within certain parameters. Seeing how different guides and tour leaders bird can actually be a great way of improving your own birding skills. Every tour leader also has certain interests you may have in common which would affect your enjoyment of a tour; they might be particularly interested in mammals, photography or certain bird families for example, or might be up-to-date with recent taxonomical changes or scientific publications that could make your tour more educational and memorable.

Group size is a tough one to quantify because of all the various factors involved. Obviously the smaller the group the better your contact will be with the tour leader, and the more likely it is that your needs will be taken into account to a greater degree. Smaller group sizes do come at a financial cost however. Larger groups also mean that you would be more likely to find other participants in the group that you get along well with – many lasting friendships have been formed when like-minded people meet on birding adventures. There are also more eyes and ears to find what you are searching with bigger groups. A large group in a forest however can be frustrating as people in the back might miss some of the shyer species, although with a good rotation system on trails no single person should miss too many species that are only glimpsed. Rockjumper specifies beforehand the maximum group size which varies from 6 to 12 participants but we also have a policy of sending a second leader if the group size exceeds 8. This is often very popular as the second leader can also then assist at the back of the group or even split the group under certain situations as well as take care of logistics if these become time-consuming, as they can be in countries like Papua New Guinea where a single leader could be kept away from the group for extended periods.

Sometimes it is as much about the experience as it is about the birds.
No-one will ever see every single bird species but it is well within the realms of possibility to see a representative of each of the approximately 240 bird families. This goal is becoming very popular with international birders, allowing them to sample the great diversity of the world’s birds. If this becomes your birding aim, then tours have to be carefully planned to maximize the number of new bird families with the minimum number of trips. Some monotypic families in particular only occur on specific islands, so tours to New Caledonia, Sulawesi, Borneo and Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) would be necessary, and larger islands like Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and New Zealand each harbor several endemic families.

These are just some of the main considerations when selecting a tour. Finally we’d also like to point out a possible solution if you feel that you cannot find a scheduled birding tour that meets your requirements, and this is private or customized tours. Private tours are the simplest way for you to control many of the factors mentioned above, as you can then decide within reason exactly how you would like the tour to run. The participants can decide if they want to change the structure of an existing tour, the length, and time of year, as well as the group size and intensity of the tour to suit their specific requirements as much as possible. This is a very popular option and one that can often be offered at a lower rate than our standard tour costs provided other factors remain similar.

Some of the above aspects may be very important for some people and irrelevant for others. To get ideas of which tours would be best suited to you and your specific interest/s and style of birding, it is often best to talk to previous tour participants and/or guides that have experienced the destinations themselves. Rockjumper’s friendly office staff would also be happy to provide advice and answer an questions that you might have. Previous trip reports are also a very useful reference tool in this regard; and, of course, some good general research on the Internet is always a good idea.

We hope this helps to clarify some of the many considerations involved in selecting your particular birding tour of choice. We wish you all the best in picking your perfect tours in future and look forward to birding with you at some time, wherever in the world this may be!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Bird of the Year 2014

Every year our tour leaders are fortunate to enjoy thousands of birds in a hundred countries across the globe, and we thought we’d take the opportunity to share their top bird highlights for 2014 with you as recorded in their own words.

Adam Riley 

2014 has been pretty much a stay at home year for me with less than 10 lifers (compared to an average of around 500 a year for the past 10 years!) After much contemplation, my bird of the year is a local species which I have seen many times before, but enjoyed superb encounters with this year. My choice is the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. This spectacular montane vulture reminds me more of a giant falcon as it cleaves the air on long wings. Besides being an impressive bird, it’s always found in breath-taking montane wildernesses which adds to thrill of finding this sought-after bird, despite its wide range through most of the major mountain chains of Africa, Europe and Asia. This year I spent 2 days at the Giant’s Castle Lammergeier hide in the Natal Drakensberg of central South Africa. We had up to 10 Lammergeiers in constant attendance around the hide and I was lucky enough to catch this dramatic moment when an adult bird decided to teach a youngster some manners.

Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture by Adam Riley

Clayton Burne

2014 has been a rather hectic birding adventure. With a year list about to cross 3000 involving visits to 22 countries and every continent barring Antarctica, keeping on top of my Top 10 would take some effort. Apparently I must now pick just 1! The year started in Guatemala with a few sightings of Horned Guan, most of the Greater Antilles Endemics followed soon afterwards, mammal migration in east Africa, more than 20 Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea, piles of Endemics on the Indonesian archipelago of Sulawesi, staggering western Cape Endemics in South Africa, the Critically Endangered White-winged Nightjar in Paraguay, another span of Endemics in Colombia…
All said and done, I had already attached my Bird of the Year sticker to the rare and localised Gold-ringed Tanager of Colombia, until a few days ago that is. For those that know me, no bird family gets me quite excited as the Antpittas do. With 15 species seen in the last 10 days (4 in a day at Rio Blanco, Colombia and 5 in a matter of hours in Ecuador), I’m rather spoilt for choice. However, there is a clear winner. The glorious Giant Antpitta, a bird I have tried to find on numerous occasions without much luck, finally gave way near Mindo, Ecuador last week. The largest of all Antpittas, it is found only in Colombia and Ecuador where it is considered both rare and enigmatic.

 Giant Antpitta by Clayton Burne

Forrest Rowland

I chose the Hypocolius for a few reasons. Firstly, it exemplifies the growing popularity of birders' quests to see all of the World's Bird Families. This monotypic species can only feasibly be seen in a very few places on Earth, all of which are in remote, fascinating places. Secondly, this year's search for the Hypocolius took us out across the famed Empty Quarter of the Sultanate of Oman, a vast, stark expanse punctuated only by the occasional steep, rocky wadi. We found our bird, getting several fantastic views (and some utterly amazing photos from participants) at the remote oasis of Mudday. The Hypocolius winters amidst the dense stand of date palms and thick acacia scrub which surrounds this historic oasis, where the journey to reach the bird is as exhilarating and unique as the bird is itself.

Grey Hypocolius by Forrest Rowland

Wayne Jones

My bird of 2014 was not a lifer for me, but the quality of sightings I had made this species immediately leap to mind. The Pel's Fishing Owl is a notoriously tricky, secretive and sought-after bird on the African continent. I had good daytime sightings on three NBZ (Namibia-Botswana-Zambia) tours that I led this year, a tour for which we have a 100% success rate when it comes to this fantastic owl. But it was two separate sightings of birds hunting at night on a customised private tour to Zambia's South Luangwa National Park that really stuck in my head. They allowed close approach, and it was wonderful to experience these huge ginger owls in such a different manner.

Pel's Fishing Owl by Wayne Jones

Markus Lilje

After much back and forth with serious contenders including Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, Papuan Logrunner and Shovel-billed Kingfisher among others I finally had to go with Dwarf Cassowary. This must be one of the world’s least known and seen large birds and is endemic to foothills and mountains of Papua New Guinea, where populations around most population centres have been hunted to extinction. Managing to find the bird for the first time on 29 tours for Rockjumper and then getting great views for everyone in the group and even photos was fantastic. For me it was also one of a number of families that was new on my second outing to this incredible island. The individual we saw was standing on the edge of a trail in Varirata National Park near Port Moresby, where it incredibly stayed for the panic stricken moments that all guides know between first finding an absolutely MEGA species and the moment when everyone laid eyes on it. After watching it for a few moments, the bird seemed to dissolve back into the forest where we didn’t find it again. Papua New Guinea has so many top birds and so many of them are hard to find, that it was really no surprise to have bird of the year come from this island for me for consecutive years. I look forward to what the New Year has to offer!

Dwarf Cassowary by Markus Lilje

Rich Lindie

Like every year before, this year has been filled with personal birding highlights and, like every year before, choosing one above the rest has not been an easy task. I had brief views of Invisible Rail and that has to count as a contender but with no photos and such brief views, I had to exclude it. Satanic Nightjar has the kind of name and history that make it a worthy contender but not quite enough to shoot to top spot for me. Having been to the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Sulawesi and parts of Africa the list of potentials remains high but two families did stand out. Being a collector of owls and kingfishers, I decided to select my bird of the year from one of these families. One or two great owls shot onto the list but, after looking at the kingfishers, I realized I have seen over half of the world's kingfishers during the course of this year alone! Picking my top bird thereafter wasn't hard and Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher takes pride of place in my hall of fame. Pack your bags and head to Sulawesi, the Philippines or Papua New Guinea now; there are enough endemic kingfishers to blow your mind!

Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher by Rich Lindie

Keith Valentine

This year has been a rather quiet one for me personally from a touring perspective, however from a family point of view it has been extremely rewarding with the birth of my second son, Ethan. A trip to nearby Malawi was the outstanding highlight of the year’s tours for me. This magical African country is a fantastic destination regardless of your African experience as a birder, being both excellent for first time visitors to the continent and having enough unique specials to keep the hardened world lister completely satisfied. We had a superb time and any one of Thyolo Alethe, White-winged Apalis, Bohm’s Bee-eater, Sharpe’s Akalat, Babbling Starling, Stierling’s Woodpecker or the rare Lesser Seedcracker could easily have taken top honours as my bird of the year. In the end however it went to a species that is particularly uncommon in Malawi and one that I had missed on a couple of earlier trips to the country over ten years ago. The bird in question is Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, a species that had now become one of my most wanted on the African continent. It is also an extremely localised species throughout its range so it was a really great moment when we had knockout views of a male and female on one of the highest view points on the stunning Nyika Plateau in far northern Malawi.

Scarlet-tufted Sunbird by Keith Valentine

David Hoddinott

My bird of the year is Flores Scops Owl, Otus alfredi. This species is endemic to the Island of Flores in the Lesser Sundas, Indonesia. Flores Scops Owl was discovered in 1896 and then not seen again until its rediscovery in 1994. It is currently considered endangered (less than 2500 individuals), due to continuing habitat loss and occurs only within a very small range.

Owls seem to captivate many birders and I am certainly one of those who get immense joy in seeing these fabulous birds. This particular species is very small and quite stunning and there is also a certain amount of myth about it due to such few sightings since its discovery, lack of data and elusiveness. On our Rockjumper tour in 2013 we heard this species very close by on numerous occasions without seeing it, it was like a ghost. We spent a great deal of time both during the evenings and very early hours of the morning searching for this highly elusive species without success. This happened yet again in 2014 where on numerous occasions we were unfortunate not to locate the species having heard it just a few metres away. It wasn’t until our final effort with a great deal of patience and persistence on our last evening on Flores that we all finally got to see this beauty. What a cracker!

Flores Scops Owl by David Hoddinott

Erik Forsyth

The Pied Thrush, which I saw at Victoria Botanical Gardens, Nuwer Eliya, Sri Lanka in late December was an early Xmas present and would compete highly for number one spot as I am fond of the Zoothera family as they are high on my wanted list.

Other fabulous sightings during the year included crippling looks at Oriental Bay Owl in Taman Negara, Malaysia and also at Sepilok in Borneo, Blue-headed Pitta- an electric coloured male in the Danum Valley, Malaysia, Reddish Scops Owl at Taman Negara and then there was a lucky find in Cairns of my first Rufous Owl found roosting, 5m off the ground and in the open. The amazing encounter with a Giant Pitta in the Danum Valley that showed on several occasions... and we know how difficult and elusive pittas can be! , and then there was the fabulous close looks at a male Crested Partridge (with his red mohican) watched for 10 minutes calling alongside the forest this is a tough choice! I particularly enjoy owls and so would have to go with Rufous Owl as my Best Bird for 2014.

 Rufous Owl by Erik Forsyth

Glen Valentine

The decision as to my top bird for 2015 was a particularly tough one with candidates including Blyth's Tragopan, Malaysian Peacock-Pheasant, Grauer's Broadbill, Friedmann's Lark, Fire-fronted Serin, Helmet Vanga and the recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird but I eventually settled on a species that is particularly localized, rare and critically endangered: the magnificent Giant Ibis.
Once fairly widespread across South-East Asia, it is now restricted to remnant marshy and grassy glades within broad-leaved deciduous forest in northern Cambodia and southern Laos. The current world population is estimated at around 100 pairs with fewer than 500 individuals remaining and has quickly become one of the world's most desired birds to see. 

In December I found myself leading a comprehensive tour around Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam. While up in the Tmatboey area in extreme northern Cambodia we began our quest to find Giant Ibis. Waking up in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn, we headed out in our 4x4 vehicles along narrow, rutted tracks that wound their way through beautiful, fairly pristine broad-leaved, dipterocarp forest. Eventually we arrived at an area where we parked the vehicles and continued on foot. Stumbling along the tiny tracks, indistinct footpaths and eventually through waist-high grass in the dark with our headlamps and moonshine being our only visibility, we finally arrived at a potential roost for this legendary species. However, no ibis were present that morning and feeling a little disheartened we birded our way back to the 4x4's. However, luck was on our side later in the morning when the front vehicle flushed a large shape from next to the road. The bird alighted on a nearby tree and revealed itself as a stunning adult Giant Ibis. What an incredible experience, which made the morning's effort totally worthwhile and the sighting even more memorable."

Giant Ibis by Glen Valentine

David Erterius

My bird of the year isn’t one of those ”mind-boggling ones” to be found in the tropics, but still has some kind of aura around it, at least for me and many Palearctic birders. To have seen this bird on its breeding grounds in the high altitude heart of Mongolia, a very remote and seldom-visited place, was an especially utopian event.

The bird in question: White-throated Bush Chat (Saxicola insignis), also known as Hodgson’s Bush Chat, which I was very fortunate to see along with my group during Rockjumper’s inaugural Mongolia Tour in early June last year.

Here’s the story: 
On arrival at the magical Khukh Lake in Mongolia’s central Khangay Mountains, truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, we were welcomed by friendly local nomads who were the only people for miles around! The only way to reach the specific breeding area was by foot, so our trek started off the following day just after dawn. We left our base camp and ascended slowly across a rather steep mountain slope. We couldn’t have asked for better weather as the sky was blue with very little cloud, and there was almost no wind! As we got higher, the scenery just got better and better and we found other interesting species as we went along, including Altai Snowcock, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, Altai Accentor and Asian Rosy Finch. After a very scenic field lunch on the summit of the mountain at 3.200 metres, we descended slowly towards a vast alpine plateau, with tussocks and scattered tiny scrub … and there it was! At the base of a south-facing slope, this smart male was posing nicely for us, and after a while his female made a short appearance as well – target in the bag, and cheers all round!

As for the image, not the greatest by any length and more of a record shot than anything, but I think it nicely captures the magic of this most memorable moment with a super rare species that I have long wanted to see!

White-throated Bush Chat by David Erterius

Chris Sharpe

My 'Bird of 2014' perplexes me more than it will my readers. I should explain that my favourite birds are generally undemonstrative or cryptic species, birds that make themselves known more by way of their haunting songs than by jumping into plain view sporting garishly colourful plumage: owls, nightjars, and especially antpittas are those that make up my most cherished armchair recollections. So when I review the year 2014, I am surprised to see a large, showy bird clamouring for attention. Admittedly, it is a cotinga, and a little-known one at that, which at least satisfies my penchant for enigmatic species. However, hardly mimetic (in fact, alarmingly colourful), what persuades me to accept its candidature is not its showy colour, but the whole circumstances of the encounter (yes, only one in 2014). As a scarce and poorly-known near endemic to the Guiana Shield, it was one of our main target birds; indeed, the top bird for one of the participants on our Guyana trip, a leading world lister. Secondly, the fact that we had such extraordinarily close and prolonged views, allowing me to ensure that everyone had obtained a satisfying study, fumble for my decidedly non-professional camera and still manage to capture the accompanying portrait when it reappeared in a low Cecropia tree alongside our vehicle. But what really clinches its claim to 'Bird of the Year' is the fact that as it hopped from tree to tree this giant cotinga was vigorously mobbed by small passerines, belying the fact that it has only recently been found to eat fruit at all: the thought of this blood-coloured beast gobbling down the contents of a Palm Tanager nest is too gruesome to pass up!

Crimson fruitcrow by Chris Sharpe

Rob Williams

In 2015 I was fortunate to bird on 3 continents and see over 2,000 species including a good number of lifers. I led Rockjumper Tours to Northern Peru and Colombia. We saw great birds on both tours and some fantastic long-awaited lifers including Scarlet-banded Barbet in Peru and Blue-wattled Currasow in Colombia. My bird of the year is the Pale-billed Antpitta. Although not a lifer, I was fortunate enough to have a really good look at this fantastic bird. I love Antpittas and seeing 3 Pale-billed Antpittas, two adults and a juvenile, bouncing around us in the bamboo-dominated forest understory was amazing. One of the adults landed on a slightly exposed log and I managed to get a picture of this rare endemic.

Pale-billed Antpitta by Rob Williams

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bhutan Birding by Markus Lilje

The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has, perhaps surprisingly for such a small country, long been considered as one of the top spots for many world birders to get to experience the wealth of fauna that this part of our world has to offer. In particular, this country provides a wonderful introduction to Asia and the Indian Subcontinent and manages to combine this with a great cultural and general wilderness experience that can’t be matched by many other destinations. Despite some challenges that the country is facing now with rapid development, it will continue to have the most extensive remaining forests in the Himalayas and be the best place to look for many of the regions most wanted birds. So you are considering heading to Bhutan but are unsure when to go and which one of our tours to join?

Rockjumper offers two tours to Bhutan every year. So what are the differences between the two? Here I will help contrast the two and give positive and negative sides to both. I include the extension we do to the Assam state of India in the discussion, but will cover this in more detail during the specific species section.

The reason we visit this part of the world with all its great attractions mainly during the second half of March and into early May, is that this is early spring with most birds very active and calling as they are preparing for the breeding season or just starting to breed by the end of this time window.

There are two main groups of birds, whose different behaviors influence what is finally likely to be recorded on the two tours. The one group consists of the birds that use the Himalayas and surrounding plains as their wintering ground, before they fly north to breed high up in the Tibetan plateau area or beyond in other parts of Eurasia. The second group is composed of the birds that spend the northern winter in more tropical parts of Asia and then migrate north to use the Himalayas to stage their breeding attempts in spring. An additional group can be made up comprising the altitudinal migrants that can be seen on both tours, but potentially at widely variable altitudes as they move up as the season becomes warmer.

So generally the first tour is better for migrant ducks, redstarts and shorebirds, while the second tour gives better chances for some cuckoos and a number of birds that are easier to locate because they are more vocal and predictable as we move into their breeding season.

So to get to some specific species:
Although Bhutan is not a place birders go to look for waterbirds, those that are seen are usually more likely to be found on the earlier tour, before they head north. The first tour in Bhutan has better chances to find Wallcreeper, which moves up to very high altitudes by the end of April. Another similar one is Snow Pigeon, which is still possible on the second tour, although most birds are out of range. Redstarts, especially White-throated and Hodgson’s are likely on the first tour too, before they head up and north. Great Cormorant is still around during the first tour, before they breed to the north in Tibet. Northern Goshawk is still around at this time of year and there is more of a chance to find some of the migrant thrushes. A few of the high-altitude flycatchers are still lower down and can be easier to find. Alpine Accentor, Eurasian Wren and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch are other birds that are often too high up by the second tour. Generally this time of year is also more likely to produce vagrants, although this is never something that can be expected of course, but we have found some interesting waterbirds as well as thrushes and other species for example.

The later tour usually takes place from mid-April and has a better chance for species like Chestnut-winged, Indian, Plaintive, Lesser, Hodgson’s Hawk- and Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoos. Many species are also more vocal at this time of year, sometimes making them easier to find – some examples include Large-billed Leaf Warbler, the shortwings, tesias, Ward’s Trogon, a few laughingthrushes, Broad-billed Warbler and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler. Some species like some of the parrotbills sometimes only reach their high-altitude ranges later when the bamboo gets better and can be hard to locate during the first tour, although some of these species are just always really hard to find.

During the extension in India, the total number of species recorded during the first and second tours can be a little different, although again most of the birds that are unlikely on a later tour are not usually the species that birders travel to this area for. Gadwall, Garganey, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck, Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail, Greylag Goose and Eurasian Wigeon are typical examples. Bar-headed Goose is far more common on the first tour, although it is still sometimes around by the time we get there on the second tour too. Daurian Redstart is possible on the earlier tour, while a number of shorebirds like Common and Spotted Redshanks and Temminck’s Stint are around the Kaziranga NP wetlands in larger numbers too, as are Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings. All the harriers are migrants, heading north in April, although Pied Harrier tends to stay around Kaziranga a little longer. If the rains have come early there are a few birds that become possible on the second tour, that include Rain Quail, Bristled Grassbird and a few species of cuckoo, while Ruddy Kingfisher can sometimes be heard in Nameri NP.

A huge factor that influences the birding in the Himalayas is the mixed flocks of birds we are sometimes able to watch moving through the forests. These seem to be encountered more frequently earlier in the year, before the onset of breeding and the birds settling down in smaller territories. Connecting with many flocks birding does not guarantee a larger list by any means, but is always a great way of seeing birds and sometimes coming across larger numbers or more opportunities for watching bird behavior as they feed nearby.

It is very important to remember that the seasons can be quite different in different years, with warmer temperatures hitting the area a few weeks earlier in some years than in others. This will obviously have a potentially big influence in when some species will still be around and at what time they will move to higher altitudes. In some years birds will start calling later because it may still be colder, while in other years some birds start breeding early and will behave in a shyer fashion and stop associating with flocks earlier. Generally the first tour is still quite cold, which you clearly feel during the camping portions of the tour, although on the flip side the temperatures at lower altitudes during the second tour can get quite hot and birding gets quiet during the middle of the day. The flowering season for rhododendrons is quite long and we generally experience this spectacle on both tours, although this again can be quite different from one season to the next. Magnolia flower earlier in the season and are best seen on the first tour, although the trees at higher altitudes flower later and can still be seen during our second tour here.

So there really is no obvious or easy answer and it may well depend on what areas have been visited before as there are some species that are more likely on the earlier and some that are easier during the later tour. In the end as with any birding tour or destination, there is always a smattering of luck required and you may find some great fruiting or flowering trees on one tour and not on the next.

So just to recap: Most of the really big targets that most participants want to see on this tour are roughly equally likely on both tours, so I would say the decision would depend on other specific targets for everyone. Ibisbill, all the pheasants, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Himalayan , the different Wren-Babblers and Beautiful Nuthatch as well as the great variety of minlas, yuhinas and fulvettas would not be considered easier or more tricky on either of the two tours. The first tour is better for migrant ducks, shorebirds, redstarts and generally for flocks. The second tour is more likely to deliver a variety of cuckoos, calling laughingthrushes, tesias and a marginally better chance for Ward’s Trogon. In addition some of other interests can be taken into account – mammals, cultural and scenic differences are very small, with even similar numbers of flowering orchid and other plant species on the two tours. It is slightly more likely to rain on the second tour, which again can help in providing the occasional sweeping views across the Himalayas. The first tour is colder, but manageably so, while the second can have some hot days. The total bird species recorded on the first and second tours are extremely similar and there is certainly not one of these tours that stands out as the obvious one to choose – either way you can be assured that a spectacular and sometimes overwhelming experience awaits you in this wonderful part of the world!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Morning in a Kalahari Leopard’s Life by Adam Riley

Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-242

Leeudril is a waterhole situated along the dry Nossob river north of Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This 15,000 sq mi Kalahari desert reserve straddles the South African and Botswana border regions and was created when two national parks were merged – these being South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. Kgalagadi means “place of thirst”, an apt name for this arid region of red sand dunes and dry savanna. However two fossil riverbeds are situated within the South African sector of the park, the Nossob and the Auob and underground water along these riverbeds results in lusher vegetation thus attracting herds of ungulates and their ever-present predators. Several artificial waterholes that have been placed along these riverbeds are a magnet for wildlife and Leeudril is one such location.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-003
At 8am on Tuesday 30th August 2012, we arrived at Leeudril after leaving nearby Tweerivieren camp and were thrilled to spot a young female Leopard next to the water tank. She circled around the tank a few times and chased some doves before walking closer towards us and disappearing into a small copse of trees. After a few minutes she leapt out of the trees and headed straight for our parked vehicle, seeming very intent.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-016
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-033
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-047
You can notice in the above images how the Leopard uses her eye-lids as hoods to protect her sensitive eyes from the bright sun as she sprinted towards us. She then spent half a minute silently poised behind our vehicle and as I watched her in my side-view mirror I could see she was completely oblivious to human presence as she had something more important in mind. She then paced across the road and stood on the edge of a patch of taller grass.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-050
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-058
Leeudril is a waterhole situated along the dry Nossob river north of Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This 15,000 sq mi Kalahari desert reserve straddles the South African and Botswana border regions and was created when two national parks were merged – these being South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. Kgalagadi means “place of thirst”, an apt name for this arid region of red sand dunes and dry savanna. However two fossil riverbeds are situated within the South African sector of the park, the Nossob and the Auob and underground water along these riverbeds results in lusher vegetation thus attracting herds of ungulates and their ever-present predators. Several artificial waterholes that have been placed along these riverbeds are a magnet for wildlife and Leeudril is one such location.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-061
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-068
People are often surprised that large predators kills smaller species but its actually a common phenomenon and I have previously seen a Leopard carrying a dead African Wild Cat at Punda Maria in Kruger National Park and Lions killing a Black-backed Jackal in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The killing of other predators eliminates competition for prey and at the same time also provides calories, so is doubly beneficial.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-083
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-101
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-138
Our Leopard then proceeded to walk back towards her copse of trees from which she had emerged, obviously her place of safety. The Wild Cat was such a large individual that the Leopard actually struggled to walk normally whilst dragging it along. Finally when she arrived, she effortlessly scaled a tall tree and reappeared on an open horizontal branch where she proceeded to lick some blood from the Wild Cat’s puncture wounds.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-171
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-198
This branch was  her dining room and remains of her previous meals, mostly dove and sandgrouse feathers, were in prominence. The Leopard was still a slight, young animal and this may have even been her first larger kill. Her immaturity further evidenced itself when she started swatting her victim with typical catlike playfulness, and ended up knocking the Wild Cat out of the tree! The Leopard then descended and seemingly forgetting her recent conquest, she scampered out towards the waterhole itself.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-237
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-240
Here she posed for a few minutes in all her glory, rolled in the dust and then trotted back to the copse of trees.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-249
Along the way she picked up two thorns in her back left foot-pad. Sitting down, she raised this leg and pulled them out using her teeth, after a few more paces, she then raised her front right leg and pulled out another thorn! Thereafter she dragged the African Wild Cat into the deep shade where she began to feed on her victim.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-271
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-273
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-290
Its always special to locate and observe a Leopard, this most beautiful and stealthy of cats, but even more exciting to have been fortunate enough to have witnessed such incredible behavior.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Hummingbirds of Folha Seca by Adam Riley

Tucked away inside a rare remnant patch of Brazil’s critically threatened Atlantic rainforests is a slice of paradise called Folha Seca (meaning “dry leaf”). Here Mr Jonas Dabronzo, as kind and intelligent a gentleman as you would ever wish to meet, owns a secluded home that has become a Mecca for hummingbirds and a myriad of other avian gems. Mr Jonas religiously feeds his flock of hummingbirds that hover around his porch and an incredible 22 species have been attracted to this haven. A visit usually reveals around 10 species and this blogpost is a celebration to some of these amazing birds that frequent Mr Jonas’ feeders. Even more amazing than the hummingbird diversity is the incredible volume of individuals that buzz around the porch and garden. Folha Seca is situated near Ubatuba between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero and if you plan to visit, please contact Mr Jonas in advance to ensure the timing is not inconvenient for him. Mr Jonas does not charge for visits but a donation of a few bags of sugar is always welcome as the hummingbirds consume a vast volume! Mr Jonas can be contacted by emailing or calling him on (12) 38482587.

The Black Jacobin is one of the commoner hummingbirds of the Atlantic rainforests, ranging from northern Argentina into Brazil. Image by Adam Riley

A Black Jacobin in flight.  Image by Adam Riley

The Brazilian Ruby is an absolute stunner and endemic to south-eastern Brazil. Image by Adam Riley

A Brazilian Ruby’s glittering throat can only be appreciated when viewed at the correct angle. Image by Adam Riley

The Swallow-tailed Hummingbird is one of Brazil’s largest species. Image by Adam Riley

The Sombre Hummingbird is another endemic of south-eastern Brazil’s Atlantic rainforests. Image by Adam Riley

Also endemic is arguably the most attractive of all the hermits, the unusual and endemic Saw-billed Hermit. Image by Adam Riley

As can be seen from this image, the White-vented Violetear is aptly named! Image by Adam Riley

A hovering Violet-capped Woodnymph. Image by Adam Riley

A male Black-throated Mango, one of South America’s more widespread hummingbird species. Image by Adam Riley

The female Black-throated Mango is quite distinctive. Image by Adam Riley/Rockjumper Birding Tours

A Versicoloured Emerald, although not as brilliantly adorned as other hummers, makes up for it with its subtle patterning. Image by Adam Riley

A Versicoloured Emerald about to enjoy a scratch. Image by Adam Riley

A Glittering-throated Emerald aptly poses with a folha seca (dry leaf) at Folha Seca! Image by Adam Riley

A Glittering-throated Emerald foraging. Image by Adam Riley

Everyone’s favourite at Folha Seca, adorable and miniscule, Festive Coquette’s are incredibly habituated and regularly buzz around one’s ears, a magical experience! Image by Adam Riley

 The tiny Festive Coquette in flight. Image by Adam Riley