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Archive for March, 2014

Oriental Storks in flight

Oriental Storks at Poyang Lake

Dave and Trissie were expecting Amber when I visited China in 2012, so I was long over-due to see my youngest grandchild.  I wanted to visit in winter when I could also see wintering birds at Poyang Lake.  So, my targets for this trip were Siberian, Hooded, and White-naped Cranes; Oriental Storks; and 18-month old Amber.  Well, I wanted to see Scaly-sided Mergansers, too, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit that into the title of this post.

My original plans were to leave home on February 14, spend a few days with my family and rest, and then fly to Nanchang for four days of birding.  However, winter storms delayed my departure and I was not able to leave until February 17.  I arrived in Hong Kong at 10:30 PM on the 18th and left the next morning for Nanchang.  The Nanchang flight was delayed, too, due to weather, but we didn’t know that until we arrived at the Shenzhen airport.  I sent Dave home and sat there alone waiting for my flight.  The airport was so cold that I was shivering even with a thick Sherpa fleece, I was exhausted, I had a headache, and my shoulder and tummy hurt.

Crested Myna

Crested Mynas were common everywhere in China

Menxiu Tong of China Wild Tour had been our local guide for the 2012 Zoothera trip and I was looking forward to birding with him again.  Menxiu met me in Nanchang as planned and we had dinner and a good night’s rest.  The next morning, Thursday, February 20, we headed to Poyang Lake.  Our birding got off to a slow start due to cold and fog, but we found quite a few birds as the day warmed up, including two of our targets – Oriental Stork and Hooded Crane.  We did not get as close to the birds as I had hoped, but we had satisfying scope views.

Hooded Crane family 2

Hooded Crane family

On Friday, we found the other three crane species that regularly winter at Poyang Lake – Siberian, Common, and White-naped.  The White-naped Cranes were quite far out, but unmistakable.  Another species that I particularly enjoyed was Swan Goose.  We had long, close looks at a flock near the road.

Swan Geese

Swan Geese

After lunch on Friday, we headed to Wuyuan, where our target was Scaly-sided Merganser.  Wuyuan had been one of my favorite locations in 2012 and we returned to some of the same birding spots on Saturday.  First was the jungle path with rice paddies on one side and the river on the other.  We had hoped to find the mergansers on the river there, but we did not see them, so we enjoyed the birds that we did find.  It was especially nice to have great looks at a Collared Owlet.

Collared Owlet

Collared Owlet

Pied Falconet

Pied Falconet

On Saturday afternoon, we visited the little island where the Courtois’s Laughingthrushes breed, which was lovely in winter, too, and the only location in my entire three plus weeks in China where I saw woodpeckers.  We saw one of Wuyuan’s avian stars, Pied Falconet, and watched it go after (unsuccessfully) an Orange-bellied Leafbird that was larger than the Falconet.  A lovely female Plumbeous Redstart entertained me for quite a while as she sallied up for insects and then repeatedly landed on the same rock in the river.  Eurasian Jays were as gorgeous as I remembered from my first visit.

Plumbeous Redstart female

Female Plumbeous Redstart

We completed Saturday’s birding with a drive along the river, again hoping for Scaly-sided Mergansers, but not finding them.  At dinner that night, we talked about our options.  Menxiu’s plan was to return to the same spot we had birded in the morning and walk the nearly impenetrable jungle path by the river.  This “path” through thick bamboo was the only birding that I had opted out of on our 2012 trip.  I had simply said that I could not do it and waited under a lovely tree by the river while the others continued pushing through the jungle.  This time I whined and complained, but Menxiu was confident that we would see the mergansers in the river along that trail, so I agreed to his plan.

Eurasian Jay

Eurasian Jay

That Saturday night dinner was our third or fourth meal at the same restaurant in Wuyuan.  Menxiu liked it because it was on a side street where the locals ate.  What I remember is the toilet.  In China, they do not have “restrooms” or “bathrooms,” but simply “toilets.”  This one featured the usual squat toilet, but it had a bonus – a tub of water right next to the toilet with four fish swimming in it.  While it seemed odd to me, later Trissie told me that Chinese would never buy dead fish as we do.  They want their fish fresh so will only buy them live.  At that restaurant, you could visit the toilet and pick out the fish for your meal at the same time!  I have to say, though, that I generally enjoy the food in China and have never been sick there with anything other than a cold.

Another Wuyuan specialty is green dumplings.  I had fallen in love with them in 2012 and enjoyed having these wonderful dumplings for breakfast both mornings in Wuyuan.  I scrutinized them a little closer this time and it appeared that the filling was tofu and vegetables.  They are perfectly seasoned and great with hot sauce.

Black Eagle

Black Eagle

Menxiu surprised me on Sunday morning with a drive to the river in our van rather than a return to the dreaded jungle path.  We found a pair of Scaly-sided Mergansers right away and got good looks at them.  We enjoyed the rest of the morning walking a road alongside the river.  While I had missed a lot of birds earlier in the trip due to my poor vision, I saw nearly everything that morning.  And, what wonderful birds we saw!  A flock of Gray-headed Parrotbills were right over our heads in a little rice paddy.  Several Gray-sided Scimitar-Babblers allowed us quality views, including one bird just a few feet away foraging on the ground and oblivious to our presence.  Other sightings that morning included Mandarin and Spot-billed Duck, Black Eagle, Brown Crake, a male Fork-tailed Sunbird glistening in the sun, and my life Red-flanked Bluetail.  It was a magical morning that I will always remember.

Gray-headed Parrotbill

Gray-headed Parrotbill

After lunch, we returned one more time to the Laughingthrush island, and then headed to Nanchang and the airport.  We had found all of our target birds and enjoyed some wonderful winter birding.  Thanks to Menxiu Tong of China Wild Tour for leading this private trip for me.  Menxiu’s photos of the trip can be found on Facebook in his album Poyang Lake and Wuyuan Birding Tour, February 2014.

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La Milpa entrance

La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Center entrance

La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Center is about 70 miles north of duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge.  Maps show a road going directly between the two locations.  However, locals warned us to not even think about it as the road was impossible to drive, especially after all the recent rain.  So, we headed east and slightly north on the Western Highway, north a short distance on the Burrell Boom cut-off, north-northwest on the Northern Highway to Orange Walk town, and finally southwest to La Milpa.  Yes, we pretty much drove in a circle to get just a little north of where we started out.  Thus, the 70-miles distance became much more and took most of a day to travel.  However, Jeremy and I enjoyed the drive and found some interesting birds on the way.

Tricolored Munia

Tricolored Munia

The first life bird on the day’s journey was mine, a Northern Jacana.  Next, it was Jeremy’s turn with a very cooperative female Snail Kite.  The kite flew around a little pond, actively foraging for snails.  What a treat to see a bird demonstrating the trait for which it is named.  The next new bird was a real puzzler.  We both knew that we had never seen it before and neither of us had any idea what it was.  And, it just was not in our book, Birds of Belize.  There was a flock of about a dozen of them in the tall weeds on the edge of a ditch by a rice field.  Jeremy and I both got photos and later someone was able to identify the birds as Tricolored Munia.  Have you guessed the rest of the story?  It is a non-native introduced species, probably established from escaped caged birds, and it is spreading rapidly in Central America and Mexico.  Like many exotic species, it is feared that they may become troublesome, especially as agricultural pests.

Oscellated Turkey

Oscellated Turkey

We arrived at La Milpa at 3:30 PM and immediately liked the research station which is operated by the Programme for Belize, a non-profit organization focused on conservation.  This was different from any other place we had stayed in Belize.  Security had been obvious at all the resorts.  At Jungle Jeanie, they even had dogs to accompany the security guards on their rounds.  Everyone had said that Belize is very safe and they just want to keep it that way.  However, at La Milpa there were no guards and not even keys to the rooms!  One guest who had apparently stayed there many times said, “I’ve never seen a key here.”  The atmosphere was very casual and academic.  A group of botany professors and students from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland, filled most of the rooms.  Meals added to the feeling of being back in school with buffet style serving, shared tables, and returning our own dishes to the kitchen.  If you wanted a beer or soda, you just helped yourself by taking one from the refrigerator and writing your name in a log book.

La Milpa Maya site

La Milpa Maya site

The guide who had been recommended to us was not available, so Jeremy and I were really on our own with birding at La Milpa, but I still added nine birds to my life list.   The first afternoon I was thrilled to see two Great Currasows at the edge of the woods and an Ocellated Turkey up close (both lifers) as well as a Keel-billed Toucan and both Red-capped and White-collared Manakins.  On Wednesday, we explored the nearby La Milpa Maya site, the third largest in Belize.  La Milpa has not been uncovered or reconstructed and I found it difficult to imagine what it was like 1200 years ago.  The most interesting description of the site that I have found is by a young man who was a volunteer in 2010 with the Field School program administered by the University of Texas, Field Notes From a Maya Ruin.  It was not as birdy as we had expected, but we enjoyed walking the jungle trails and seeing a gorgeous Black-throated Shrike-Tanager, a life bird for both Jeremy and me.

Red-capped Manakin

Red-capped Manakin

Owl Butterfly

Owl Butterfly

Back at the field station, jungle life right on the grounds delighted us. Red-capped Manakins seemed to be everywhere, a huge owl butterfly flew into a building and was later rescued, Red Foxes cried on the walkways. And, there was the “magic tree,” perhaps a type of fig. You could watch this small tree for hours and keep seeing new birds as they came to feast on the small fruits. The weedy areas around the edges attracted birds, too, including one of our new favorites, the brilliant Blue Bunting. There were very few artificial feeders at La Milpa, but careful planting of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs brought the birds in close to the buildings and walkways.

Blue Bunting

Blue Bunting

All too soon, it was our last morning in Belize.  We had breakfast at La Milpa, birded for an hour, and then started towards the airport.  We saw one more trip bird and a lifer for Jeremy, a Bronzed Cowbird, on our leisurely drive to Belize City.  The entire 12-day trip (January 11-23, 2014) was wonderful and I look forward to my next visit to Belize.

White-collared Mankin - female

Female White-collared Mankin

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