Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Birding Trip to Botswana: Part 3

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler
Read Part 1
and Part 2

The Khwai Area

Forty-five percent of all the land in Botswana has been set aside for wildlife; there will be no further development in reserved areas and in some cases villages have been moved. This was the case with the villagers of Khwai. They are Babukahkwe or river bushmen and speak their own language, though Setswana and English are also commonly spoken. Sango camp is adjacent to this small village with a population of less than 400 people. The camp provides employment and income for the community members who still live in huts built out of blocks cut from termite mounds (some mounds were 12 feet tall).

At the Sango camp, we were greeted by its friendly staff and whisked to our cabins. On our first evening at Sango, the three of us ate a candlelight dinner on the front porch of our cabin overlooking the Khwai River. The musical accompaniment was the loud grunts and groans of hippopotami patrolling the water in the Khwai River and streamside 50 yards from our door.

We spent three days in the Khwai area. The schedule for the rest of the trip: arising at 5 a.m., eating a light breakfast and beginning to bird from 6 to around 11 a.m. We then had a full lunch at the lodge and enjoyed a siesta until teatime at 4p.m., then we birded until 6:30 or 7 p.m., before having a delicious dinner. We ate all our meals with Richard by choice and didn’t socialize very much with other guests, who were mostly English and Germans interested in wildlife photography and looking for what is commonly known as “The Big 5”: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo.

The Big 5 is a term left over from the days of hunting. Of note, Botswana has banned all game hunting since January 2014, though there had been a moratorium on hunting certain species for more than 13 years before. While the ban has generated a lot of mostly negative press, Richard felt that it made his job a lot easier, as animals were not as afraid or potentially as dangerous. With the overall steep decline of wildlife throughout the world, a place where a people have said “enough,” seems an oasis in a world gone mad for trophies and meat. We were more philosophically inclined towards the “Little 5”: the antlion, the leopard tortoise (we saw many of them), the elephant shrew; the rhinoceros beetle, and the buffalo weaver.

During our first morning in and around the Khwai village, we enjoyed watching the Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, but were sorry to see that their nests had already been abandoned before our arrival. And we saw both the Red-billed Firefinch (not so easily distinguished from the Jameson’s Firefinch, which we saw the next day) and the Red-billed Quelea, known to be the most numerous bird on the planet but in numbers far less than we expected (in the tens rather than in the hundreds or hundred thousands). However, the starlings (Cape, Meve’s, Greater Blue, and Burchell’s Starling) proved to be beyond our expectations, with a very different in appearance from the European Starlings found in North America in that they were a beautifully iridescent blue and did not flock together in large numbers. We felt right at home: identifying the ubiquitous Southern Grey-headed Sparrow; finding the Bennett’s Woodpecker on a tree in front of a house; and pursuing warbler-like birds, the Grey-backed Camaroptera and the Tawny-flanked Prinia in bushy areas far outside the village . We had to admit that the call of the ubiquitous Grey Go-away-bird indeed sounded like “Go away,” though our brief glimpse of the Broad-billed Roller didn’t convince us that it was as beautiful as the Lilac-breasted Roller. We were captivated by the lovely and confiding Levaillant’s Cuckoo and the Great-spotted Cuckoo. Our glimpses of the elusive Swamp Boubou with its haunting whistles reminded us in coloration of a very dark Loggerhead Shrike, while the glowing green back of the equally elusive Green-winged Pytilia against its vermilion head seemed in a class all its own. It was also here that Alan and Richard got a glimpse of what proved to be the most challenging bird for the two of us to see on the trip: the African Hoopoe.

Great-spotted Cuckoo

Bennett’s Woodpecker

Some of the most unusually shaped shore birds that we saw in Botswana were first seen during the trips that we took to explore the Khwai River riverbanks: the Marabou Stork (with what appears to be a huge goiter but is in reality a very large yellow gular sac hanging from its throat), the African Openbill (with a bill specially evolved to crush snails, somewhat like a nutcracker), and the Hamerkop (a wader that has a massive head with a crest and bill that appears more formidable than that of a Pileated Woodpecker). Of course, one must mention the Knob-billed Duck. An unusually shaped land bird which we observed was the Common Scimitarbill, a member of the Hoopoe family, all of which are known for their relatively long decurved bills; this dark blue bird with white patches on its wings, and its aptly named scimitar bill.

African Openbill

Knob-billed Duck

There were also beautiful small birds to enjoy: White-bellied Sunbirds kept the scimitarbill company, and the call of the Orange-breasted Bushshrike drew us from our post-prandial torpor to watch a pair cavorting in a tree a few steps from the door of our tent-cabin.

At Khwai three species of lapwings also caught our attention: the Blacksmith (with a black chest and white crown), the Long-toed Lapwing (with a white head and upper breast, red-orange legs, and not significantly long toes) and the Crowned Lapwing (with a black line through the eye, a white super cilium, and a black crown; red-orange legs, and a light grey back). A pair of latter birds was guarding a pair well-camouflaged eggs laid on the bare ground. We observed two species of jacana (the African Jacana - 9-inches with chestnut and black wings, a pale blue frontal shield, and a golden upper breast) and the (Lesser Jacana – 6-inches with dark grey and light grey wings, chestnut crown, and a completely white chest). And we spotted a Spotted Thick-knee, a wader, which reminded us of a 17-inch Cactus Wren with yellow legs, but with spots on the back not on the breast and stripes on the breast not on the back!


Long-toed Lapwing
Crowned Lapwing

At Khwai we saw the striking world’s largest heron, hence named Goliath Heron (56 inches but only 11 pounds), the beautiful and surprisingly confiding Rufous-bellied Heron, the Squacco Heron (a very pale heron similar in color and posture to the Western Cattle Egret, which we also saw there), the African Darter (almost identical to the Anhinga of North America), the African Spoonbill (which is white and not as beautiful as the Roseate Spoonbill of North America), and the riveting Saddle-billed Stork (the world’s tallest stork with a red and black 14-inch bill that has a large yellow “saddle” at the junction of the bill with its black head. What appeared to be mates were perhaps the most confiding birds on the trip, posing for about a half an hour before taking off to soar majestically over our heads.) Small waterholes attracted a diversity of birds, herons, egrets, and specialties like Hadada Ibis, Egyptian Goose, and Woolly-necked Stork. We had no trouble finding the African Sacred Ibis (with its black head and white body), together with the Great Egret, but we really had to search for the Southern Ground Hornbill (the size of a turkey and almost as clumsy a flier.)

Goliath Heron
Rufous-bellied Heron
Squacco Heron
Saddle-billed Stork
African Sacred Ibis
Southern Ground Hornbill

We will always recall one early evening being up on a 15-foot high observation post in the Sango camp that overlooked the river, when we got fantastic looks at a Coppery-tailed Coucal (18-1/2 inches with an eerie call that echos for quite a distance) and a pair of African Paradise Flycatchers (the male is 14-3/4 inches with two 6-inch copper tail streamers. The next day we photographed the male with his enormous tail hanging out of a nest by a building in the camp.) From our post, as the light faded, we had a wonderful view with our Kowa land telescope of a young male elephant taking a bath in the river.

African Paradise Flycatcher

Eagles ruled in the Khwai area. We saw the Black-chested Snake Eagle whose name should be changed to the Black-headed Eagle as most of the chest is pure white, Brown Snake Eagle (no feathers on its legs), African Fish Eagle (very similar in appearance to the Bald Eagle), Lesser Spotted Eagle (very similar to the Tawny eagle but without heavily-feathered legs), and the Whalberg’s Eagle (with a slight crest. The Bateleur is an eagle with very short legs, some red facial skin, very white under the wings with black at the trailing edges, and an unmistakable rocking flight.

African Fish Eagle

One morning Richard arranged for us to be taken by a special guide Romeo who poled a boat called a mokoro the size of a large kayak on a lily-covered backwater in the Khwai area. We got good looks at and took photos of a tiny Malachite Kingfisher (blue, copper, white and malachite; 5-1/2 inches, with a bill that appears gigantic), the relatively huge Woodland Kingfisher, and a Black-headed Oriole.

Malachite Kingfisher

Woodland Kingfisher

Our stalwart guide was responsible for both finding and identifying more that 75% of the birds that we saw on the trip. He was “on it” 100% of the time, and we so much wanted to find a new species of bird for him. That happened in Sango when we found a Quailfinch (a small gray bird with a bright red bill, horizontal black and white barring on its chest, and a large white eye ring).

Richard is mostly well known for his ability to find large mammals (we didn’t know this until we googled him at home after the trip and found glowing reviews for him). During our trip we saw two reptiles: the Nile Monitor and the Leopard Tortoise and following mammals: serval, zebra, (many, many) impala (impossibly many), waterbuck, red lechwe, jackal, warthog, hyena, wildebeest, all 4 species of mongoose, baboon, tsesebe, kudu, cape buffalo, hippopotamus, giraffe, vervet monkeys, many elephants., and lots of lions. And Richard was quite conscientious about reminding us to stay near the vehicle when we were birding. He explained that although lions, for example, were capable of smelling our presence, they didn’t recognize humans when they were in the vehicle because they just perceived the vehicle, which to them was like a large rock

One morning we were watching hippopotami and noticed the symbiotic relationship they had with Red-billed Oxpeckers, who were gleaning insects around their eyes. Richard explained that hippos did not just stay in wet areas, but were capable of wandering around for long distances in the bush looking for waterholes. But we felt that big mammals were the sidelight of our trip, until one day when we were just outside the vehicle watching an African Stone Chat, a handsome bird that reminded us of a smaller version of a Spotted Towhee. Alan happened to look in the distance and saw that about 300 yards away a lion was walking toward us. Richard and Alan jumped into the cab of the vehicle while Albert remained sitting up in the back. We all watched it walking toward us, coming closer, and closer, and closer (within the shadow cast by our vehicle) until finally as it passed, it was so close that Alan could have easily reached out and stroked its mane! Albert took as many photos as she could before being immobilized by fear. The lion just marked its territory and moved on and we started to breathe again.

Red-billed Oxpeckers

Everyday at Khwai camp we were up around dawn and out until sunset and still felt there would have been much more to be seen. Birders less in need of a cup of coffee could have been out sooner and birders more inclined to lengthen the life list would have spent less time on each individual bird and added more variety. But when we had to leave, we were very, very pleased to have seen “tons of birds” after just three short days.

Alan and Albert Adler have been residing in Tucson since 1998. Alan has been a lifelong birder, and from June 1999 through August 2002, he served as a writer and the volunteer editor of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher. In the spring of 2000, he was very pleased to report that the 32-page “newsletter”, as it was known then, was ranked 1st among those from 10 other “very large” chapters, beating Seattle, Greater Denver, and Fairfax, Virginia in the competition held by the National Audubon Society.  For the past seven years, Alan has volunteered with the Lend A Hand Senior Assistance, Inc., twice serving as its co-President. Albert began birding as an adult and has worked as a pediatrician with the Tohono O’odahm tribe since August 1998. The photos that accompany the article were taken almost entirely by Albert.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Guest post by Dan Weisz

I just returned from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and really enjoyed seeing the varied habitat and the rich birdlife there.  The Festival is very well run.  The first day we visited the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  This area is famous for having the second highest bird count of any of the national wildlife refuges in the United States.  It is also now famous as the site where the new border wall that President Trump promised is going to be built.  The wall will rest on a levee that is one mile from the border and the vegetation will be cleared for 100 yards on either side of the wall, cutting right through the center of the refuge.  Here is the refuge’s webpage:

A view of the water and thick vegetation in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

A Golden Fronted Woodpecker on a snag as viewed from the top of an observation tower above the canopy.  It looks similar to our Gila Woodpeckers but with the added yellow feathers at the base of its upper bill and a golden nape (the back of its head).

Green Jays were everywhere we went over the weekend.  This one was in a group coming to seed feeders in the refuge.

Green Jays are colorful tropical birds found primarily in Mexico and South America.  Green Jays just makes their way into the US in southern Texas (see the range map below).

There is also a resident population of Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen, the town that hosts the festival.  The Red-crowned Parrots are native to a small region of northeastern Mexico, but through illegal pet trade, escaped birds and released pets have established colonies of feral population in a number of cities in the United States.

We found them near sunset in a residential neighborhood of Harlingen.

South Padre Island is a popular destination for Spring Breakers, but it is also a popular stop-over for migrating birds and offers a year-round sub-tropical environment for many other birds.

In one park, we saw a female Tennessee Warbler enjoying fruits on a tree on its way to its wintering home.  This is a bird that summers in the Canadian boreal forest.  Check out the range map to see how far this little bird has already flown on its way south.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Birding Trip to Northeast Botswana: Part 2

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler
Read Part 1

Botswana is a landlocked country with no intercontinental airports. We left Tucson on November 23, 2016 to fly first to Atlanta and then take the Delta flight directly from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. It is a 14-hour flight (one of the top ten longest flights in the world) and we knew we would need a little downtime once in South Africa to reset our clocks. We stayed two nights in Johannesburg at a small hotel with lovely grounds. After a 36-hour layover we flew the final 700 miles to the Maun (population 56,000) on South Africa Airlines. The flight attendants on that flight worked their tails off to provide drink service and a hot lunch – impressive. There was always a small nagging thought that we would arrive in Maun and find no one there to meet us. Even though we had travel insurance, we were far from anywhere, feeling quite dependent. When we got through passport control and walked out to see our names on a Kit Adventure card we were totally relieved. For the first of many times Richard and the other Batswana we met during our journey proved we could count on them. We grabbed our bags and headed for the converted Land Cruiser that would be “birding central” for the next two weeks.

The Road to Sango Camp
Lilac-breasted Roller
It was 1 p.m. on November 26th when Richard picked us up at the Maun airport to head out to the first of three camps within three different areas, and we began birding almost immediately. The vehicle Richard provided had rows of seats in the back, which enabled us to obtain wonderful views out either side and over the cab. It combined the childhood thrill of riding in the back of the pickup with the safety of seat belts. And it had a sunshade. There was always a cooler for our preferred drinks to refresh ourselves or to toast a particularly fine view.

It was on the road to Sango Camp that we immediately became familiar with Richard’s style. He would see or hear something that we had no clue about, suddenly pull over or back up, turn off the truck, and point out the object of his interest. This gave us ample opportunity to find the bird, listen to the call, and take almost as many pictures as we wanted. Neither of us are wildlife photographers and our only big camera was the Canon Powershot SX60, so there was a lot of zoom fiddling, but Richard was always the height of patience. It must be noted that we were able to photograph with this camera nearly all the birds identified in this trip report. As a result we have recorded a lot of memories that would already be faded.

On the way out of town, we saw for the first of many, many times what we believe is the most ubiquitous, beauteous bird in all the world: the Lilac-breasted Roller. Richard told us that it is the unofficial national bird of Botswana. Other ubiquitous birds that we saw that exciting first afternoon in country were: the Fork-tailed Drongo, (a few days later we took a photo of one harassing a Brown Snake Eagle); the Ring-necked Dove, with distinctive white patches on its tail, and the beautiful Helmeted Guinea Fowl; the secretive but quite striking Red-billed Spurfowl whose calls would greet our every morning. One of the most unusual families of birds are the hornbills; that day we saw the Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed, African Grey, and the Bradfield’s Hornbill as well as our first Bee-eater: the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, which is a predominantly green bird; only the males have a blue cheek. As we were going along, Richard suddenly stopped and about 10 yards from the road amidst the trees was our first of many sightings of a Giraffe. It was on the road to Sango camp from Maun that we saw the Striated Heron, the Emerald–spotted Wood Dove, the Pale Chanting Goshawk, the Groundscraper Thrush, the Double-banded Sandgrouse , and the Crested Francolin – all from families of birds with which we were familiar. But on that road we saw two 15-inch tall land birds: the striking Senegal Coucal (one of several species of coucal that we were to see elsewhere with their black crests pure white bellies, and lovely russet wings), and the Red-crested Korhaan (one of two species of these birds that have very distinct, beautiful markings on their back and upper part of their wings).

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

Bradfield’s Hornbill

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Crested Francolin

In the 12 days we were together, we never failed to be amazed by his extraordinary ability to be barreling down a dirt road and still pick out something amazing – sunbirds at the top of a tree 100 yards away or a pair of male lions quietly resting 10 feet from the road, perfectly camouflaged in the dry brush. Our delight and excitement with each new bird, and, oh yes, cape buffalo, impala, and lion and elephant tracks, meant that our 2-½ hour trip to Sango Camp took close to 5. We were thrilled, and after all, we thought, isn’t that what we came for? Evening was falling by the time we rolled across the bridge and into the Sango camp within the Khwai Community Area.

Stay tuned for Part 3! 

Lilac-breasted Rollers


Alan and Albert Adler have been residing in Tucson since 1998. Alan has been a lifelong birder, and from June 1999 through August 2002, he served as a writer and the volunteer editor of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher. In the spring of 2000, he was very pleased to report that the 32-page “newsletter”, as it was known then, was ranked 1st among those from 10 other “very large” chapters, beating Seattle, Greater Denver, and Fairfax, Virginia in the competition held by the National Audubon Society.  For the past seven years, Alan has volunteered with the Lend A Hand Senior Assistance, Inc., twice serving as its co-President. Albert began birding as an adult and has worked as a pediatrician with the Tohono O’odahm tribe since August 1998. The photos that accompany the article were taken almost entirely by Albert.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Journeying Home - Paton Center for Hummingbirds

 Guest post by Bonnie Paton Moon

NOTE: Tucson Audubon Society's efforts to preserve the Paton Center, while making necessary upgrades to accommodate tens-of-thousands of visitors annually, prompted the launch of a Capital Campaign in April 2017. A reunion of major donors included a visit from one of Wally and Marion Paton's daughters, Bonnie Paton Moon. Recently, Bonnie shared her reflections on this special spring weekend in Patagonia.

I hadn’t journeyed home to Patagonia in awhile, but this trip was a celebration I would not miss−the three-year reunion of Paton supporters who had been instrumental in “saving” Paton’s Birder Haven. The weekend also marked Tucson Audubon’s Capital Campaign Kick-off to fund improvements to the house. While there, I had the great honor of sharing from my book, Journey Home─How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy ─ the story about my parents, Wally and Marion Paton and the creation of their world-renowned bird watching backyard.

Bonnie Paton Moon Shares from Journey Home-Cady Hall, April 29, 2017

Entering the yard, so familiar, yet different now, I was immediately struck by all the improvements completed by Tucson Audubon Society since my last visit two years ago. What a thrill to see my parents honored for creating this birding mecca that still attracts thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the globe. While reading the sign, a couple from British Columbia approached−their first visit to Paton’s. “Where do we pay?” was their first question to me. “There is no entrance fee” I replied, a tradition my parents established decades ago and continues today. The “sugar fund,” originally an old coffee can hung on the fence, is now a spiffy donation box, and remains strictly voluntary.

Paton Legacy Sign, Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center, April, 2017

After three glorious days during which Paton supporters were treated to some fabulous spring migration birding, tours of the property by various staff involved in improvement projects, talks by Hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson, from Southern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) and Jesus Garcia, Director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, it was time to say goodbye once again.

As I wandered the property on that last day I spent a few moments in the yard reflecting at some special spots. My Dad’s pecan tree still thrives in the back yard, bigger and more robust that ever and still producing a good amount of pecans each year. I sat a good while on my parents’ memorial bench and reflected on the beauty of this place ─ the land they had nurtured for decades, still loved and nurtured. It had been positioned near to the site of my Dad’s former orchard in the front yard. Plans to re-establish an orchard here are underway. Jonathan Horst, Restoration Ecologist, is heading up this project.

Wally Paton’s Pecan Tree Thrives in the back yard, April 2017

I stopped to remember my Mom’s rose garden in the front yard, ready to pop with bloom−her passion. I sat on a bench in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol and Paul Lamberger, Paton supporters. We sat for a good while at this peaceful spot overlooking the newly created pond−all possible because of the kindness and generosity of Marcia Grand and the hard work of Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers.

Bonnie Paton Moon in front yard. Marion Paton’s Roses Bloom in background

Then a very special moment happened. As I was getting in the car to leave, Carol Lamberger inquired if the rose bushes in the front yard were my mothers. “Yes,” I answered, “she loved roses. We would always gift one or several at Mother’s Day.” Carol smiled and promised to take special care of them. And in that moment I was reminded of the special magic that surrounds Paton’s ─ it seems to bring out the very best in people ─ it always did and continues to do so. It is the underlying essence of the place and that spirit of kindness and generosity that my parents exemplified that will continue in perpetuity. In addition, of course, to remaining one of the top birding sites in the world.

Sitting in the Richard Grand Memorial Meadow with Carol & Paul Lamberger

Learn more about Wally and Marion Paton and how Paton's Birder Haven came to be in Bonnie's book, Journey Home─How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy. Pick up a copy at our Nature Shop today!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Desert Hackberry Fruits Attract Birds

Guest post by Dan Weisz

One of the Desert Hackberry plants behind my house is loaded with fruit now and I’ve been watching birds move in and out this week, partaking in the juicy berries.  The timing and quantity of fruit ripening is highly dependent on rainfall.  Fruits can ripen any time between July and December.  The fruits are very bright and sweet, with one hard seed in the middle.  

Want hackberry and all these fun birds in your own yard? Read on to learn about our Habitat at Home program and how you can make your outdoor spaces better for wildlife!

Gila Woodpeckers are enjoying the fruit.  (Gila Woodpeckers eat insects, fruit, seeds, occasional birds’ eggs, and lizards).  Each time this bird would grab a fruit, it would then fly off to another location to eat it.  He was eating snacks “to-go”.

Northern Mockingbirds also enjoyed the berries.  Although I wasn’t able to get a photo of this particular bird with the fruit in his mouth, he had just swallowed a fruit whole and you can see the lump in his throat and a satisfied look in his eyes!  With that long narrow bill, mockingbirds seem to be built to eat insects.  They do eat mainly insects in the summer but switch to eating mostly fruit in the fall and winter.

Gulp!!  And the fruit continues its travel down the mockingbird’s throat!

I saw many House finches going in and out of the plant.  With that beak, house finches would seem to favor diets of seeds, but they do eat all parts of plants including fruit.  This is a “before” photo so you can see the beak size/shape.

And I finally caught a house finch in the act.  The fruit was probably too large to be swallowed whole and the finch seemed to be biting through chunks of the fruits.

A female Pyrrhuloxia enjoyed the fruit as well.  At first, it seemed like she was having trouble getting that entire berry in her mouth.

But she definitely managed just a few moments later, swallowing the entire berry whole.

Here is another Mockingbird with a berry.  This bird seems to have a few feathers sticking up above its eye.

And down the hatch it goes.

Habitat at Home Recognition program – Create a beautiful, water-saving landscape that attracts birds and other wildlife

A Habitat at Home landscaping can lower your water bills, reduce yard maintenance, and beautify your home while providing food and habitat for the birds that enrich our community. Native species allow you to enjoy a cooler, low-maintenance, and beautiful landscape in Tucson’s hot and dry weather. Join the program and we'll show you how to do it!

Registration opens on November 14

For more info on Desert Hackberry plants, here are a few references.