Toucan Time

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I was well into my forties before I got to see a wild toucan, but this first encounter wasn’t quite the thrilling ‘seek-pursue-and-find’ moment that quickens the heart of a birdwatcher.

It was May 2003 and we’d crossed the Atlantic from Johannesburg to Atlanta, Georgia – an unavoidable overnight stop in the USA on route to Costa Rica. I’d been enamored with this small Central American country – or at least its avian and other biological riches – ever since I had read the wonderful books of Alexander Skutch. From the 1960s, this great naturalist studied in detail the nesting and other habits of many species of Neotropical birds that were practically unknown, and described in great detail his natural history observations and life in this Spanish-speaking country.

Our first destination in Costa Rica was the La Selva Biological Station close to the Caribbean shore of what is a skinny country divided geographically by a central cordillera (mountain chain) that separates the Pacific from the Caribbean.  La Selva is a protected area comprising about 1,600 hectares of steamy lowland rainforest and is owned and operated by the Organisation of Tropical Studies as a research site. Accommodation for tourists is limited, but of the kind that I relish. Simple little log cabins, with a communal dining room and bar where it was possible to meet and chat with researchers who were studying hummingbirds, sloths, poison-dart frogs and leaf-cutter ants.

It was just moments after our arrival, while carrying our bags from the car park to the cabin, that I saw not one, but two species of toucan! There, in the highest, dead branches of an unidentified tree bounded a pair of Chestnut-mandibled Toucans. The birds were about crow-sized, but with an enormous bill of about the same length. No sooner had I dropped the bags to untangle my binocular strap from around my neck, than an equally impressive toucan – the Keel-billed – appeared in an adjacent Cecropia tree. My camera was as yet unpacked, so there was no chance to try and photograph these marvelous birds, but I needn’t have worried. We had numerous subsequent encounters with both species (the latter really should be called Rainbow-billed Toucan), as well as the much smaller Collared Aracari.

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With their oversized bills, toucans appear to be related to the hornbills of Asia and Africa but they are in fact closer to barbets in general anatomy. They feed primarily on berries and other fruit but are also opportunistic predators of large insects, lizards and bird nestlings. Although direct evidence of these birds raiding nests is limited, it is plain to see that it is far from being an uncommon habit, as they are frequently mobbed and chased away by oropendolas, tanagers and other smaller birds.

Largest of the 40 or so toucan species (taxonomists haven’t quite decided what is what) is the iconic Toco Toucan – beloved of cartoonists and brand managers in need of a striking emblem. It was a few years later – July 2006 – that I got to see and know this bird which has such a huge bill that it appears to defy the laws of gravity by not plummeting to the ground when airborne, or constantly tipping of its perch. As it happens, the luminescent tangerine bill is hollow and no heavier than if it were made out of stiff paper. Unlike most other toucans, which inhabit the fringes and canopy of rain forests, the Toco also occurs in open palm savanna of the Brazilian Pantanal. Here, in one of the world’s most incredible places to view wildlife, it must compete for attention with equally spectacular Hyacinth Macaws, Giant Anteaters and Jaguars.

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One of my most memorable toucan encounters took place in the cool, damp and misty heights of the Andes in Peru. We were on the fabled Manu Road that connects the ancient city of Cuzco with the Amazon Basin – a perilous mountain track with hairpin bends and switchbacks suitable for an Indiana Jones movie scene. Some way before a spot known as Pillahuata, we’d pulled over at a roadside clearing to see what birds were present in the epiphyte-laden elfin forest that blanketted the slopes at an elevation of about 3,000 metres above sea-level (the highest point on the Manu Road pass over the Andes is 3,720 metres and a personal high point for me on Planet Earth). I was, at any rate, trying to work out whether the tiny, long-tailed birds foraging among the moss,orchids and lichen were thistletails or spinetails, when a Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan suddenly arrived on the scene. It was immediately joined by a companion, then both uttered a shrill protest call before disappearing back into the mist from which they had come.

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Duncan Butchart

 

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Tantalizing Tanagers

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Paradise Tanagers (Tangara chilensis), Lower Manu Road, Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, Peru. May, 2004.

“To stand in bright morning sunshine before a tree laden with ripening berries is one of the great delights of bird-watching in tropical America . . . . nearly always, the tanager family provides the greatest number of species and individuals, and most of the colour.” These are the words of the great naturalist Alexander Skutch  (1904-2004), who spent well over half his long life studying birds in the forests of Costa Rica.

Certainly, when it comes to colour, the New World tanagers are difficult to beat. This is actually quite a hard family of birds to define, with about 250 species in the family Thraupidae. The great majority are resident in the tropics of South and Central America, but two or three species migrate to the USA and even Canada. In general body shape they are not dissimilar to sparrows, although some species have modified bills that allow them to exploit distinct feeding niches. In recent years, taxonomists have had a field day with the tanagers, lumping them with cardinals and the New World buntings (not related to African buntings), then splitting them apart again, only to re-shuffle two of the most beautiful tribes (the chlorophonias and euphonies) in among the buntings. Modern-day taxonomy of birds is so fluid, that I find it hard to take seriously.

At any rate, of the various tanagers, those belonging to the genus Tangara are undoubtedly the most spectacular. Even before you’ve laid eyes on them, their alluring names will captivate you: Saffron-crowned, Beryl-spangled, Opal-rumped, Flame-faced, Silver-throated and Brassy-breasted, to name just a few.

In the cloud forests of Peru – the moist east-facing slopes of the Andes – tanagers form a significant part of the mixed feeding flocks that sweep through the canopies and moss-clad thickets. Here, it’s possible to walk for a hour or so and see hardly a bird, then be inundated with a hundred-strong mob, of thirty or more species, feeding on bugs, caterpillars and berries. This can be an overwhelming experience, not knowing where to look, or which bird to follow with binoculars. Soon enough, the wave of birds will pass and you can then catch your breath to flip through the field guide and read your notes. If you’re lucky, you might have been able to identify half of the birds that passed within a few metres.

Heading south-east of Cusco, we crossed the high, barren altiplano before zig-zagging down the eastern slopes of the Andes in a series of treacherous hairpin bends. This is the fabled ‘Manu Road’, known to traveling birders all around the world. At around 2,950 metres above sea level, the trees are stunted and the air is sharp. Once over this chilly lip, the trees get larger and birds become more conspicuous. Grass-green Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager and Capped Conebill were among the first members of the family we encountered, although we were somewhat distracted by Grey-breasted Mountain Toucans and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, not to mention the many hummingbirds. The variety of birds along the Manu Road is truly remarkable, with most species operating within blurred altitudinal bands.

We’d stopped so often for birds (the whole point of being there), that it was already dark when we checked-in to the charming Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge at an elevation of around 1,400 metres. We were out before dawn the following day to watch the spell-binding birds (after which this lodge is named) displaying at their communal lek site, but having accomplished this, it was a simple matter of wandering around the little garden (just a clearing really) or drinking good coffee, with binoculars in hand, on the shady verandah overlooking the forest canopy.  It was from this vantage point that we saw our first Paradise Tanagers- lime-headed beauties gathering to preen and stretch on the leafless twigs of an emergent tree.

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Red-necked Tanager (Tangara cyanocephala) and Green-headed Tanager (Tangara seledon), Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. July, 2007.

A few year later, we were among the throngs of tourists being shuffled up and down the impressive Corcovado Mountain above Rio de Janeiro – to gaze out at the ‘Sugarloaf Mountain’ (like Corcovado it is an enormous granite dome) looming over Guanabara Bay, and gawk at the giant statue of Jesus Christ. Here, in dense bushes alongside the well-trod pathways I happened upon Red-necked Tanager and Green-headed Tanager – two of the most striking members of the family, and common visitors to gardens in the outer suburbs of Rio.

Duncan Butchart Peru 2004 and Brazil 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

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Moon Music

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Fiery-necked Nightjar Caprimulgus pectoralis, Vermont, S.W. Cape, South Africa.

Of all birds, the nightjars are perhaps the least noticed. Being both nocturnal and cryptically plumaged, few people are probably even aware of their existence. Two or three times the size of a swallow or a swift, they take over from these small aerial feeders after sunset, scooping up moths and other winged insects as they sail above marshes and pastures, through woodlands and orchards, with mouths agape.

Since moving to the southern Cape from the South African Lowveld, I have been surprised on more than a few occasions by the birds that I have encountered around Hermanus: Malachite Kingfishers hunting in the stinging cold waters along the coast, Southern Tchagras hopping along our garden wall, and Speckled Pigeons feeding on grape seeds in the local vineyards.  But hearing the lyrical lullaby of the Fiery-necked Nightjar as  savage waves crash against stubborn seaside rocks and the salty scent of kelp drifts across the Strandveld, is not something I was expecting.  This is a bird that I associate with savanna, its bushveld ballad being backed-up by tree-frogs, fruit-bats and hyenas.

Of the seven species that occur in southern Africa, only the Fiery-necked has a call that would capture the attention of anyone other than a knowledgeable naturalist  – but what a joyful song it is! As clear and as memorable as a Christmas carol, it was long ago verbalised as “Good Lord, deliver us!” by some spiritual soul, and this hard-to-fault description has been used in every field-guide and bird reference book since then.

There is pale cradle moon hanging above the mountain and the sky is filled with a trillion stars as I step out into the chilly night. The nightjar is so close that its song bursts through the air like a mini explosion. Quite what these nightjars are feeding on here, I have yet to discover – based on the paucity of moths around our outdoor lights, they must have a somewhat different diet to their bushveld relatives.

Vermont, Hermanus, August 2015

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Ginger Giant

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Like butter in a hot pan, the mokoro slides effortlessly out from the inlet onto the still, coppery-bronze surface of the Okavango floodplain. The prow of the dugout parts rafts of waterlilies as Tshenolo poles us silently towards the little island, now illuminated by the first crimson glow of the rising sun.

Beady-eyed reedfrogs watch us from their sedge-stem lookouts and an otter breaks the surface to check us out, before carrying on with his search for an early breakfast.

Last night at Jacana Camp, under the outdoor shower, the palm trees and the light of a thousand stars, I’d heard the distinctive deep ‘boom’ of two Pel’s Fishing-Owls communicating. To be honest, it’s a rather ominous call, like the distant beat of a war drum, but the owls were simply keeping in touch and letting rivals know of their presence. They were on the tiny island that we were now approaching and our early start was in the hope of finding one or both of them before they retreated to dense cover. In midwinter, owls frequently take advantage of the warm sun.

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Two jacanas scurry away as Tshenolo guides the mokoro beneath the arching branches of a waterberry tree and with one final stab and shove we are beached on the muddy bank. I raise myself up and clamber out, camera over my shoulder and binoculars around my neck. We step over some old, dry elephant dung – they were probably here for the palm nuts – and find ourselves beneath an enormous African Ebony. This ancient tree, says TH, is where the fishing-owls roost by day. The sun is up and now illuminating the trunk and lower branches as well as the crown – the whole tree is glowing. And there, staring down at us with its inky eyes, is a great ginger giant of an owl. Scotopelia peli – Pel’s Fishing-Owl – that most awe-inspiring of African birds. Only the strange, prehistoric-looking Shoebill of the Rift Valley swamplands, seems to rival Pel’s in the desirability stakes among birders.

I manage to take a couple of photographs, but they are not what I really want and so I move around the tree to try and get a better vantage point. The owl is higher up than I had hoped for, and there is no sign whatsoever of its mate. ‘TH’ signals for me to move in his direction, but as I step back into a small clearing, a twig snaps under my foot and the owl decides to shuffle deeper into the foliage. There will be no more photo opportunities here, but the tenacious and wily mokoro pilot-guide has a plan. We are heading off to another small island where Tshenolo knows of a second pair.

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“And there, staring down at us with its inky eyes, is a great ginger giant of an owl.”

Measuring 64 centimetres from the point of its bill to the tip of its toes, Pel’s Fishing-Owl is one of the largest owls in the world, only a fraction smaller than the Giant (Verreaux’s) Eagle-Owl. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a few of these magnificent owls, although my first Pel’s was stone dead and stuffed in a 1970’s display cabinet at the Transvaal Museum. Back in 1986, it was a bold juvenile that appeared out of nowhere to perch briefly on a stump in front of a glorious amber sunset at Xakanaxa. Then, at Xaro on the ‘pan-handle’ where the broad Okavango River is yet to fan-out, I watched an adult hunting catfish after dark. Before these sightings I had picked up a ginger flight feather on a small Okavango island and – pinned on the dashboard of my VW kombi – it went everywhere with me, for years.

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Pel’s Fishing-Owl specimen at the Transvaal Museum, 1976.

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My first Pel’s Fishing-Owl at Xakanaxa, Okavango Delta, 1986.

The sun is up now and bouncing off the crystal clear water which in places is just half a metre deep. It is still cold though, so the dragonflies and damsels remain on their perches, transparent wings glittering with dew. In a few months time, the Okavango floodwaters will have receded and there will be zebra grazing where otters are currently pursuing tilapia. ‘TH’ poles on and we cross a larger channel before re-entering the shallows then enter a little lagoon crowded in by waterberries. Then, in an orange blur, a huge owl launches out in front of us and rises above the papyrus before dipping down and gliding off out of sight. A Pel’s Fishing-Owl had been right there, perched on the broad horizontal branch at our eye-level – just two metres ahead of us! This is not a big island, however, and it must have landed nearby so we are out of the mokoro in a heartbeat. A mob of bulbuls and helmetshrikes are kicking up a racket on the edge of a dark-foliaged mangosteen tree. Knowing that the hidden owl is almost certainly watching our every move, I calmly walk away from the mangosteen and into a palm thicket before doubling back in wide arc, under cover. I am about ten metres from the tree and the lens on my camera is set for a possible flight shot. A step closer, then another. The small birds are still bothering the hidden owl, urging it to take flight. Suddenly, the ginger giant launches out and for an instant it seems to just hang in the air, right in front of me. It feels as if I might be able to count its primary feathers. I swing the camera up, but its too late, the owl is now gliding away – I’ve blown it.

Or have I? This is what seeking out Pel’s Fishing-Owl is really all about. It is not about the perfect shot, it’s about moving carefully in its watery world, it’s about patience and anticipation, but also knowing when it is time to let the shy owl be, and move on. And more than anything, it is about the knowledge and perseverance of an Okavango mokoro pilot and guide – in this regard, there are none finer than Tshenolo ‘TH’ Mahongo of Jacana Camp.

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Master mokoro poler, guide and owl-finder: Tshenolo ‘TH’ Mahongo of Jacana Camp.

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Jacana Camp, The Jao Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Note: Jacana Camp is one of six superb tented camps in The Jao Reserve – a private concession in the north-western part of the Okavango Delta which comprises permanent and seasonal swamp as well as the large savanna-dominated Hunda Island. The term ‘birder’s paradise’ is bandied around way too frequently, but it is hard to avoid using it here. All of the Okavango ‘specials’ can be seen at Jao, with Slaty Egret, Coppery-tailed Coucal, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Swamp Nightjar, Wattled Crane, Long-toed Lapwing, Rufous-bellied Heron and Swamp Boubou among the over 160 species I saw in a few days in early June. Add to this, close encounters with Malachite Kingfisher, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, African Fish-Eagle and Saddle-billed Stork and it is very hard to beat. Oh, and by the way, all of Africa’s great mammals are here too – an abundance of elephant and some of the most relaxed leopards you can hope to meet and photograph.

Jacana Camp, The Jao Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

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Ladies First

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The Brown-throated Wattle-eye (Platysteira cyanea) is a delightful warbler-sized bird of closed-canopy forest. More often than not, its clear, descending whistle call – or grating alarm notes – are heard before the bird itself comes into view. These are terrific birds to watch as they are forever busy – moving up and down vines, launching out to snap up flying insects or gleaning the underside of leaves. Very often, they join mixed feeding flocks – a gang of unrelated insectivores that move through the forest together – flushing prey and eating as they go. They are also among the first on the scene when an owl needs to be mobbed.

The purpose of the fleshy lipstick-red eye-wattles is not known, but they probably have some role in courtship display. Unusual among birds, the species’ English name refers to a trait of the female rather than the male. Finally, some gender equality in bird nomenclature!

I watched this pair while exploring small forest patches on the Oloololo escarpment in western Kenya with Tyler Davis of Angama Mara.

Angama Mara, Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2015

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The Swallow, the Milkwood and the Hairy-legged Fly

milkwood-copy Wander along the southern Cape coast at this time of year and you’ll quickly become alert to the pungent, summertime scent of the Milkwood tree. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, however, with words such as ‘ghastly’, ‘foetid’ and ‘smelly socks’ being bandied about by locals. I’m not sure if I should be admitting it, but I don’t find the powerful Milkwood fragrance at all unpleasant. It is so sharp, that if you inhale deeply, it seems to burn the back of your nostrils – with a distinctive salty zing! I guess that mustard or menthol might be the closest comparison, but the Milkwood is not as fresh, and perhaps it is a little rancid.

The other thing that I have noticed about the flowering Milkwood trees, is that they attract large numbers of Barn Swallows. Every so often, a particular tree is surrounded by dozens (if not a hundreds) of swallows, as well as martins and swifts which sweep above and around the shiny, evergreen foliage.

It doesn’t take much to deduce that these aerial insectivores are capturing the insects that are being lured to the tree’s tiny flowers. But what kind of insects are drawn to such a strong, overpowering perfume? To find out, I whisked a small net through the foliage of a flowering Milkwood tree. The net was immediately abuzz with tiny flies – about a third of the size of the common House Fly. Close inspection (did you know that reversing your binoculars turns them into magnifying glasses?) revealed these flies to have extremely hairy middle legs. Pollen from the anthers of the waxy little flowers will stick to these hairs and be transported to the ovaries. I can find no published information on the pollinators of Sideroxylon inerme, but these flies almost certainly belong to the genus Trichopoda – the so-called ‘Feather-legged Flies’. Perhaps they are even an undescribed species? Sideroxylon.inerme

Why are some trees surrounded by feeding swallows and others not? My theory is that the rapidly moving birds create enough air turbulence to disturb the flies and send them into the air where they can be scooped up. A gentle shake of a flowering stem bears this out, as clouds of little flies take to the air. One swallow darting around a Milkwood tree full of flies might struggle to find sufficient food, but a flock of swallows that keeps sending swarms of flies into the air provides enough prey for all the participants.

From what I have seen, Barn Swallows are more abundant here in the southern Cape than in the eastern Lowveld (where I lived for the past 20 years). But perhaps this is only an impression caused by the large number of flowering Milkwood trees in our neighbourhood. Who would have thought that the migratory Barn Swallows that must soon make the 10,000 km journey back to Europe are fuelled – in no small way – by the hairy-legged flies lured by the smelly Milkwood flowers?!

The Milkwood tree (Sideroxylon inerme) is adapted for life by the sea – its glossy, evergreen foliage being able to withstand the salty air and strong winds. It is able to grow on sand dunes but does better along seeps and watercourses. In general, the more sheltered from the wind, and the closer its roots are to water, the greater the Milkwood’s stature. A height of 15 metres seems to be the record, but it is usually wider than it is tall. Trees that grow on sea facing dunes are ‘pruned’ by the wind and salt, shaped more like a hedge than a tree. Like other members of the family Sapotaceae, the stems and leaves contact a white latex – thus the name, milkwood! Once the little flies have performed their pollination role, the stems become crowded with inky-black berries – relished by mousebirds, bulbuls and white-eyes.

Vermont, Hermanus, Southern Cape, South Africa. February 2015

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Beach Runners

 

Plover,White-fronted2Like other plovers, the White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) does not build a nest but lays its camouflaged eggs directly into a shallow scrape – above the high-tide line among dried kelp or rocks. The young are precocial, able to walk about after their parents within a few hours of hatching. Dogs are a known predator of the young, and people or vehicles can easily destroys the nests.

These sparrow-sized plovers are resident on the beaches here in Hermanus on the southern tip of Africa. This lively youngster was watched as it followed one of its parents close to Onrus beach. The adult let it explore its surroundings, but made a soft call when it strayed too far. The hatchling then dashed to its parent’s side but soon went off again in search of sand-hoppers and other morsels.

Hermanus, South Africa, December 2014

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