Bolivia – Macaws and Conservation Lodges October 2015

Red-fronted Macaws. Copyright Paul Jones.

Red-fronted Macaws. Copyright Paul Jones.

Save the dates – Oct 7 to 20, 2015. Finally it is all coming together. A country that captured my imagination and interest for many years will be part of our offerings. Bolivia! Through help from my friends at Bird Bolivia, as well as the Birdlife Partner Fundacion Armonia this dream of a trip is now on the books. The plan is to visit three different areas of Bolivia, staying at lodges that have been built to accommodate birders and bring in funds that will help in funding local conservation projects. One lodge benefits the Red-fronted Macaw seen above in Paul Jone’s photo; this is a unique and endemic macaw of Bolivia. The other lodge is Sadiri within Madidi National Park. Foothill forest, so cooler than the lowland Tropical Forest, but close enough that one can drive down the road to see lowland birds too. This is a great, spot to see lots and lots of birds, and in comfort! Finally, we visit the Barba Azul Reserve, the only reserve created strictly for the conservation of the uber rare Blue-throated Macaw (blue beard, or “barba azul”). Here a whole slew of other interesting birds are found from Cock-tailed Tyrants and Streamer-tailed Tyrants, to endemic regional subspecies (future species?), as well as Maned Wolf, Giant Anteaters…wow. But the best thing about this tour is that it is specially created to maximize the dollars going back to conservation projects. As well this is a trip where we stay in few places and try to minimize the travel, although Bolivia is a huge country. Rather than being in a bus all day, we will be at lodges, and venturing out from them to bird. These are awesome areas, with some awesome birds. Join me in Bolivia this October! Send me an email if you are interested.

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Sedge Wren Shakeup!!

Formerly the Sedge Wren, this is the southernmost species in the complex.

Formerly the Sedge Wren, this is the southernmost species in the complex. Now known as the Austral Wren.

For those who have traveled down south and have seen a “Sedge Wren” in South America, you may have the opinion that those things down there are nothing like the Sedge Wren of the north. Well, you would have been right in your assertion. For some time the name Grass Wren was given to anything that was not the classic North American Sedge Wren, but it turns out to be even more nuanced than that.

A paper by Mark Robbins and Arpad Nyari published December 2014 (The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 126(4):649–662, 2014) clarifies the relationship of the various Sedge Wren forms. They used data from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to put together a hypothesis for the relationships in the group, in addition they also analyzed vocalizations of the various forms. Their analysis found that the Apolinar’s and Merida wrens of Colombia and Venezuela were part of this complex, and embedded within it. Their data suggest that including these two species there are a whopping 11 species!! Robbins and Nyari make a plea for temperate grassland conservation, stating that many of these species are either very rare and restricted now, or have had massive population drops since large scale grazing and agriculture altered the landscape.

Wrens will be the new tapaculos. Keep your eyes out on House Wren, as there likely be a similar number of suggested splits in the future. It may even be more complex with the House Wrens. Marsh Wren is two species in North America, and it is not impossible that we have more than one Bewick’s Wren in the continent. Watch the wrens in the coming years. Below are the suggested species in the complex.

Cistothorus stellarisSedge Wren. This is the one we find in the United States and Canada.

Cistothorus meridaeMerida Wren. Venezuela.

Cistothorus apolinariApolinar’s Wren. Colombia.

Cistothorus elegansGrass Wren. Highlands of Mexico to Panama.

Cistothorus hornensisAustral Wren. Chile, Patagonia, and the Falklands. This is the bird pictured above, the southernmost in the group, and one that has a relatively short tail.

Cistothorus tucumanusTucuman Wren. Santa Cruz, Bolivia south to Cordoba, Argentina.

Cistothorus platensisPampas Wren. Note that this is the species that will carry the original name, platensis, as it was the first named based on the Rio de la Plata. Lowlands of Bolivia east through Paraguay and S Brazil south through Uruguay to central Argentina.

Cistothorus minimusPuna Wren. Ayacucho Peru to Altiplano of Bolivia.

Cistothorus graminicolaJunin Wren. Highlands of N  Peru, Junin.

Cistothorus aequatorialisParamo Wren. Paramos of Andean Venezuela, Colombia south to N Peru.

Cistothorus alticolaVenezuelan Wren. Tepuis of Venezuela.

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Sept 5 2014 – Monterey Bay Pelagic Trip Report

What a huge number of birds!…. and whales! It is a buffet right now in Monterey Bay, and it is bringing in the masses of inshore shearwaters including many Black-vented and a handful of Manx mixed in with the masses of Sooty Shearwaters. A great trip, with superb weather, and lots of mammals mixed in with the birds. Download the trip report here: 2014 Sept 5 Monterey Bay

Black-vented Shearwater Sept 5 2014 Monterey

One of the many Black-vented Shearwaters today, and I mean many. We saw enough that we were able to spot two leucistic individuals. One nearly all white, the other much more patchy. It turns out that Black-vented has a propensity towards leucism, but it is unclear why?

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Trip report – Sept 6 2014 San Mateo County pelagic

We had a great trip out of Half Moon Bay. Great calm weather and lots of birds. Highlights included a Flesh-footed Shearwater, two Tufted Puffins, three species of storm petrels, all three jaegers and Skua, plus a Laysan Albatross. For a full report, download this: 2014 Sept 6 San Mateo County Pelagic.

Tufted Puffins Half Moon Bay


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Salvin’s Albatross – new for California?

Salvin's Albatross CA AJ5



Our pelagic trip out of Half Moon Bay yesterday (July 26, 14) ended up being amazing. If we did not find the bird of the season, well, it is going to be a heck of a season. The star of the show was a juvenile Salvin’s Albatross, which should be along the Humboldt Current in its non-breeding areas, it breeds in islands SE of New Zealand (Bounty and Snares Islands). The taxonomy and identification of this bird has been in flux during the last ten years or so. The complex is known as the Shy Albatross, and it has three components: White-capped, Salvin’s and Chatham. Most world authorities now separate them into three different species, some have suggested two with Chatham as a subspecies of Salvin’s. The South American Classification Committee has separated them into three, here is a link to the proposal I wrote for the committee.

In California there is a record of Salvin’s Albatross, but recently it has been called to question as a likely Chatham. Once the AOU defines the taxonomy in North America, and the identification of that earlier record, we will know if this is in fact a first for California!! We even made it on the ABA blog!! Thanks to Tom Mattusch of the Huli Cat for making the trip possible, and of course all of the folks who accompanied us out there.


Tom Grey’s photos

Ron Wolf’s photos

Malia de Felice’s photos

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A fantastic day out of Half Moon Bay last Sunday May 4th, our annual spring pelagic which once again was a great one. Highlights were two Laysan Albatrosses, two Tufted Puffins, a wide diversity of more common seabirds and an awesome show by a group of friendly Humpback Whales. You can read the trip summary by clicking on the link below. Good Birding!

2014 May 4 – Spring Pelagic

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Black-capped Petrel of the dark type - Hatteras, North Carolina.

Black-capped Petrel of the dark type – Hatteras, North Carolina.

On June 13 and 14 we are doing two back to back pelagic trips out of Hatteras, North Carolina with Brian Patteson and crew on the Stormy Petrel II. The plan is to go out to the Gulf Stream on these two days and look for the expected seabirds as well as the unexpected!  Sign up, or contact me for more information. Cost is $165 per trip. Led by Alvaro Jaramillo, George Armistead, Brian Patteson, and Kate Sutherland.

Black-capped Petrels of the dark and paler forms (different races, or species?) are expected, as are Cory’s, Audubon’s, Great shearwaters, along with Wilson’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels. Bridled Tern is also on the list of birds that we expect. Manx Shearwaters should be around in shallower water as well, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel is in the area and we shall be looking form them.

Bridled Tern - Hatteras North Carolina. June 2013

Bridled Tern – Hatteras North Carolina. June 2013

The unexpected could include Fea’s, Trindade petrels or even the Cahow (Bermuda Petrel). Last year we found a Trindade Petrel. We will also be keeping an eye out for boobies and tropicbirds. Anything is possible at this time of year. Maybe something entirely out of this world will show up – European Storm-Petrel or Black-bellied Storm-Petrel anyone? We can at least dream!

Great Shearwater

In addition, other wildlife is likely to be found. Various dolphins, pilot whales, sea turtles and flying fish. We will also get to learn about the ecosystem that is the Gulf Stream, what it means for birds as well as birding, and get a good grounding on the identification of East Coast seabirds. It promises to be a fun, and enjoyable two days of seabirding. Of course you are welcome to come on only one of the boats too.

Black-capped Petrel of the pale type - Hatteras, North Carolina.

Black-capped Petrel of the pale type – Hatteras, North Carolina.

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King and Clapper Rail

Cuban Clapper Rail

Cuban Clapper Rail

For many Eastern North American birders the King and Clapper rails are similar, but usually not a huge identification issue as King is brighter and keeps to fresh water marshes, and Clapper duller and keeps to salt marshes. But leave the east and things become more complicated. There are bright colored large rails in fresh water marshes in the highlands of Mexico, often classified as Kings, but sometimes as Clappers. On the West Coast, such as in California Clappers are in salt marshes, but they are relatively small and bright colored, not as dull as birds from the east. Then in South America Clappers are small and dull, and restricted to mangroves. Neotropical Birds has a range map and info for the King and Clapper rails. Very recently James Maley and Robb Brumfield of Louisiana State University tackled this problem by looking at the genetic relationships of these birds. They found that they sorted out into various groups, and that the eastern Clapper Rails were the closest relatives of the King Rail; interestingly the California Clapper Rail is not as closely related to the eastern Clapper Rail, it is related to the rails in the highlands of Mexico! They make the proposal to divide the complex into five species, based on each being genetically related to each other, and morphologically identifiable. Voice was not analyzed in the group, but King and Clapper rails are not all that different from each other vocally. For more information on voice, head over to So the five species suggested would be:

1) King Rail (Rallus elegans) of fresh water marshes of the East and Cuba.

2) Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) of the East and Gulf Coast, Caribbean and Yucatan.The bird in the photo above is in the Caribbean subgroup of the Clapper Rail.

3) Mangrove Rail (Rallus longirostris) of mangroves of South America.

4) Mexican Rail (Rallus tenuirostris) of the highlands of Mexico, living in fresh water marshes.

5) Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus) of California, Arizona, Baja and NW coast of Mexico. This is the one you can see in the San Francisco Bay Area. Note also that if this taxonomic change, this would become a federally endangered species, rather than endangered subspecies. I wonder if folks will warm up to the English name or if another will be proposed, we shall see.

This link from the original publication shows museum specimens of members of the groups, from left to right: Mexican Rail, Ridgway’s Rail, Mangrove Rail, Clapper Rail (Caribbean), Clapper Rail (US), King Rail.

Assuming the South American and North American committees of the AOU vote and accept this proposal, we could have several additional rail species to look for. But importantly, another reason to come to California – to see Ridgway’s Rail. Great place is Palo Alto Baylands on a high tide. – Alvaro.



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Pioneer Canyon – July 21, 2013. Albatross galore.

Black-footed Albatross AJ1This was the first trip of the fall season and it turned out amazingly well. Although we were hoping to find some warm water and have a chance for a petrel of some type, the water was cold and instead we had a very birdy trip. It was non-stop, there were birds almost everywhere we looked and went. At one time 97 Black-footed Albatross were around the boat, and eventually we encountered one or two Laysan Albatross. We will be conservative and say one, although the two sightings were a distance apart and one in each county we visited! Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel1 AJ Laysan Albatross AJ Scripp's Murrelet AJUnexpected was a Manx Shearwater on our way out, a species that seems to be diligently colonizing the Pacific Ocean from its Atlantic Ocean origins. Then there were the storm-petrels! You never know where they will be, and early in the season with little information to go on there is always trepidation on whether one is going to find a group, or any at all. Well, we found a whole bunch of Ashy Storm-Petrels, as well as a high (for California) number of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and some very good views of the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel which can be hit and miss. A few folks were able to get on Black Storm-Petrel, we are hoping that as the season progresses more of them will show up. Speaking of showing up, some guests are early to the party such as Buller’s Shearwater which appears to be arriving early this year. Will it be a banner year for this species? We shall see as the season progresses, and why don’t you come out and document this for yourself on one of our trips? Back in May we noted that our sighting of Scripp’s Murrelet was odd at this season, and given that there had been other odd sightings in central California we predicted that they may be around with us unseasonably throughout the summer. Well we found three on this trip, and they were in cold water, not where you usually find them. We pondered why they are here now and out of habitat? I expect we shall see many more later on in the season.  For a full summary of what we saw, please have a look at the2013 July 21 – Pioneer Canyon I prepared. And do e-mail me to book for future pelagic trips as they are filling up quickly right now.



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The Pincoya Storm Petrel dances out into reality!

Auk Cover Pincoya Storm Petrel

Cover of Jan 2013 Auk with image of our new storm-petrel

Several years ago on a birding tour, Ricardo Matus and I noticed some “Wilson’s” Storm-Petrels while crossing on the ferry to Chiloe Island. They looked odd! They were strikingly contrasting, with bright white upperwing bars, and seemingly extensive pale on the underwing – wear perhaps? As we watched, Ricardo mentions that they also had white bellies…really? Not possible, we must have just gotten a bad look, as is often the case when you see a bird from a boat. But then things got interesting! Very soon after an Irish and American group of birders see up close, and photograph these storm-petrels, and they are indeed different – it wasn’t a bad look after all. To read their early account of this discovery, noting also that Peter Harrison had seen these odd stormies in the 80s, click on the link from Scilly Pelagics, informally they become the “Puerto Montt Storm-Petrels” named for the largest city and port near the area in which they were seen.

Then things get serious! At that point Peter Harrison formed a team to go and capture these birds, measure them and collect as much data as possible from them. I get out to do the museum work in NY, measuring and clarifying how they relate in morphology to the other closely related species. Once we were convinced that we had enough data, we decided to publish and create name for the creature. Well, I am excited to announce that our multi-national team headed by Peter Harrison has just published the description of this new species of Storm-Petrel from Chile, the Pincoya Storm-Petrel (Oceanites pincoyae) in the latest issue of the Auk! To download a copy of the paper, click here on Pincoya Storm-Petrel Description, to obtain a pdf. This is the first brand new storm-petrel to be described in 90 years, not a cryptic species that was split, but something altogether new that had gone unnoticed!

What is a Pincoya? That link will take you to an artist’s rendition of the Pincoya. She is a major figure in Chilotan (Chiloe Island) mythology, and has been described in this way: “This goddess of extraordinary beauty personifies the spirit of ocean and shore. The abundance or scarcity of the marine harvest depends upon this lovely creature. Pincoya rises from the depths of the sea, half-naked, draped in kelp and dances on beaches or wave tops. When facing the open sea in her dance there will be an abundant harvest of seafood. However if she turns her face towards the land there will be a want of food.
If the scarcity is prolonged due to the absence of Pincoya it is possible to entice her back by magic ceremonies conducted by witches or magicians. Pincoya is so beautiful, sensual and attractive that she makes fish swim with their mouths open. Pincoya comes to the aid of shipwrecked islanders and at times fishermen come across her amongst the rocks combing her long red or blond hair.

And what is left? Plenty. The team has genetic material of the Pincoyae, and preliminary results are interesting to say the least. We also have to determine now where they breed and how many there are. This is a busy part of the sea, with much human influence, as it is a sound rather than open ocean where they choose to live. The next steps are to determine its status and begin the process of securing that the Pincoya can keep on dancing as she looks at the sea for ever!

With great excitement!!!!! Alvaro




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