How Big is a Giant Antpitta?

Giant antpitta in Mindo, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 February 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 4, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

Antpittas (family Grallariidae) are forest birds of Central and South America that specialize in eating ants. Though they nest in trees, they spend most of their time on the ground where their brown-rust plumage provides excellent camouflage. They are usually heard, not seen.

The typical antpitta is often described as a “ball on sticks” because most of them are small, plump and nearly tailless with long legs.

The giant antpitta (Grallaria gigantea) is far from typical. He’s the length of an American robin but weighs four times as much. He’s same weight as a pileated woodpecker and triple the weight of other antpittas in his area. Wikipedia explains:

G. gigantea is, as its name suggests, a huge antpitta. Length ranges from 24 to 28 centimetres (9.4 to 11.0 in) and weight is up to 300 grams (10.6 oz), which makes it easily the heaviest of all tracheophone suboscine birds. Its nearest rival, the chestnut-throated huet-huet [native to Chile], is not known to exceed 185 grams (6.5 oz).

Wikipedia: Giant antpitta

Usually a giant antpitta is never seen but you know he’s out there when you hear a sound like an eastern screech-owl that rises at the end. (Do you hear the rain in this audio clip?)

We expect to see him at Refugio Paz de las Aves because bird whisperer Angel Paz can call them into view to snack on earthworms.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto; click on the media links to se the originals)

Iconic Bird in Mindo

Toucan barbet photos from Wikimedia Commons (originals at links left, right)

31 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 3, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

Now that we’re based at Séptimo Paraíso Lodge in the Mindo Valley we expect to see this iconic bird several times in the next five days.

Bright and colorful, the toucan barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus) is about the size of a starling though heftier. He uses his short fat beak to eat fruit, squeeze nectar from flowers, and dig nest holes in trees.

Toucan barbet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Toucan barbets are very social, living year round in a family group of six+ birds that claim 30 – 40 acres of mountain forest. The group consists of the breeding pair plus their offspring from prior years who help raise the young during the February-to-May (or as late as October) breeding season.

Cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The group starts the day with a duet to tell the neighbors: “Good morning! We are here! This territory belongs to us! We will fight you if you come here!” Other groups will sneak onto their land if they think the owners are far away.

Watch them eat, preen and “sing” in this video.

(photos form Wikimedia Commons, online resources: Birds of the World: Toucan barbet)

Loads of Hummingbirds!

30 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 2, Yanacocha Reserve on Pichincha Volcano

If you want to see hummingbirds, Ecuador is the place to be. It holds the worlds record for the highest number of species and contains about 40% of the total.

The checklist for our tour has 51 hummingbirds on it, 28 of which have been seen every time WINGS makes the trip. The slideshow displays 20 that we’re certain to see. I tried to memorize them in advance but there are just too many!

As you look at the hummingbirds, here’s something to watch for: Nearly every species has a white dot, called a post-ocular spot, or a white stripe of feathers behind the eye. Why do they have this and what is it for? My Google searches cannot find an answer.

Here are the species in slideshow order with links to their eBird descriptions and [photo on Wikimedia Commons].

  1. Andean emerald (Amazilia franciae) [photo] 
  2. Gorgeated sunangel (Heliangelus strophianus) [photo]
  3. Booted racket-tail  (Ocreatus underwoodii) [photo] 
  4. Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni) [photo] 
  5. Buff-tailed coronet (Boissonneaua flavescens) [photo] 
  6. Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) [photo] 
  7. Empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) [photo] 
  8. Fawn-breasted brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides) [photo] 
  9. Great sapphirewing (Pterophanes cyanopterus) [photo]  
  10. Purple-bibbed whitetip (Urosticte benjamini) [photo] 
  11. Purple-throated woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii) [photo] 
  12. Sapphire-vented puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani) [photo] 
  13. Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) [photo] 
  14. Sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) [photo]
  15. Speckled hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) [photo]
  16. Tawny-bellied hermit (Phaethornis syrmatophorus) [photo] 
  17. Tyrian metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina) [photo] 
  18. Violet-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis) [photo] 
  19. Velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini) [photo] 
  20. White-whiskered hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui) [photo] 

NOTE: The photos may not match exactly to the Mindo Valley hummingbirds because some species vary by location. For instance, see this illustration of the booted racket-tail.

Hello From Puembo

Scrub tanager, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 1, Puembo Birding Garden

Today I’m spending my first day in Ecuador at the Puembo Birding Garden, a bed and breakfast with cool birds conveniently located near Quito’s airport. Our WINGS tour opens here tonight at dinner.

Puembo Birding Garden is an eBird hotspot so I found out what I’m likely to see long before I arrived. #1 will be a Life Bird that ranges from Columbia to Ecuador, the scrub tanager (Stilpnia vitriolina), easily attracted to fruit trays even in the rain.

Scrub tanager in the rain, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps I’ll hear a croaking ground dove (Columbina cruziana) that looks like an orange-billed mourning dove and sounds like a frog …

Croaking ground dove, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or the bright red crimson-mantled woodpecker (Colaptes rivolii) …

Crimson-mantled woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or an amazing hummingbird, the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae).

Black-tailed trainbearer in Quito (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Check out this video for a look at where I am today.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals)

Gone Birding in Ecuador’s NW Andes

Choco toucan, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 0, Fly to Quito before the tour begins

Today I’m on my way to a 9-day WINGS Birding Tour in Ecuador’s Mindo and Northwest Andes. I expect to see at least 200 Life Birds including the choco toucan (Ramphastos brevis), described as the most emblematic bird of the Pichincha Province where we’ll be birding.

This is my first trip to Ecuador so everything will be new. Located on the Pacific Coast of South America, it’s about the size of Oregon with a population density similar to Michigan’s. Amazingly, it is directly south of Pennsylvania and presently in the same time zone because PA is on Standard Time right now.

Map of Ecuador and its neighbors (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Ecuador is famous for its biodiversity and especially its birds. The country’s checklist of 1,656 species is considerably more than the number in the entire U.S. Our tour in the Northwest Andes won’t need to travel far to see them. Staying within Pichincha Province and 100 miles of Quito, our checklist contains 535 species including 51 hummingbirds and 59 tanagers.

WINGS Birding Tours route in Ecuador NW Andes, 29 Jan – 5 Feb 2023 (image from WINGS Birding Tours)

This large number of birds is directly related to the Ecuador’s diverse habitats.  Though we will never see the ocean we’ll travel in cloud forest from 5,000 to 12,000 feet. At the higher elevations we may see the Chuquiraga plant (Chuquiraga jussieui), a hummingbird favorite and the national flower of Ecuador.

Chuquiraga jussieui, the National Flower of Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though we’ll have WiFi at the lodge I know I’ll be too busy to blog so I’ve written all 10 days of articles in advance.  For now, I’m (mostly) off the grid until I my return to Pittsburgh on Monday evening, February 6.

NOTES:

  • The National Bird of Ecuador is the Andean condor. It is extremely unlikely we’ll see it.
  • The number of species in the U.S. varies based on what’s included. Wikipedia’s list of 1,125 includes 155 accidental, 101 casual, 55 introduced and 33 extinct. The real wonder is that the U.S. spans a continent and includes arctic Alaska and tropical Hawaii yet it has fewer species than Ecuador, which is only the size of Oregon.

(photo and maps from Wikimedia Commons and WINGS. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

With Their Mind But No Wings

Coyote pouncing, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 January 2023

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are highly adaptable and very smart about food and humans because their lives depend upon it. Of course they live where food is plentiful but in places like Pennsylvania, where they’re hunted or trapped without limit all year long, they hide from humans and operate at night. In locations with less human pressure they forage during the day and encounter their familiars — ravens and sometimes crows.

Coyotes and Corvids often meet when it’s time to eat, especially at carcasses in winter. The carcass below attracted ravens and a black-billed magpie along with the coyote.

Coyote with ravens and magpie at a carcass in Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ravens apparently realize that coyotes are smart for they sometimes enlist their help by leading them to a carcass they cannot open on their own.

Coyote near a raven at Metzger Farm Open Space, Colorado (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do Corvids describe a coyote? Perhaps like this, as described by Doug Anderson.

Crows

Hunch in the trees
to gossip
about God and his inexorable
experimenting,
about deer guts and fish so stupid
you could sell them air
and how out in the deserts
there’s a dog called coyote
with their mind
but no wings. …

— excerpt from Crows by Doug Anderson from Blues for Unemployed Secret Police Curbstone Press ©2000.  (Reprinted by permission, http://www.curbstone.org/). Click here for the full poem.

Common raven perched on a car (photo by David Kay from Shutterstock.com in 2011)

No wings? No problem. Here’s a coyote.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock; click on the captions to see the originals)

Action Maps of Wind, Waves and More

Screenshot of ocean currents from earth website

26 January 2023

More fun with maps!

Earlier this month when I wrote about wind speed maps (How Fast Is The Wind Blowing?) Steve Thomas sent a link to the earth mapping website. I remembered green swirling maps on my own blog, Winds On Water, but seven years ago I didn’t look further than the default surface winds.

The earth website is, in their own words, “a visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers updated every three hours.” Their action maps include high altitude winds, ocean currents, temperatures, fires and more.

Let’s start exploring with today’s map of surface winds, shown below (click here to open it on your own computer). I guarantee it will look different than this image I pulled yesterday.

Surface winds over the continental U.S. and mid latitudes of North Atlantic, 25 January 2023 (screenshot form earth)

To see the legend and change the map click on the [earth] icon at bottom left. The default setting is:

  • Mode=Air
  • Animate=Wind
  • Height=Sfc (surface)
  • Overlay=Wind
Screenshot of legend at earth website

To see winds at higher altitude I chose Height=250. [250 hPa = 250 hectopascals = lower pressure = higher altitude. The lower the hPa number, the higher the altitude above the surface.]

  • Mode=Air
  • Animate=Wind
  • Height=250
  • Overlay=Wind

The wind is screaming purple-white at 250 hPa. It looks like the jet stream.

Screenshot of winds at height 250hPa from earth website

To achieve the map of ocean currents shown at top I chose:

  • Mode=Ocean
  • Animate=Currents
  • Overlay=HTSGW (Significant Wave Height)
Screenshot of legend at earth website

Click here to see an action map of the Gulf Stream at the ocean’s surface (screenshot at top). Watch it rounding the tip of Florida, then pumping north and east into the Atlantic, leaving vortices in the Gulf of Mexico.

That strong current near the east coast of Florida is the water “highway” that many creatures use for migrating north. It’s the reason why you can see whales from shore in early spring.

Try out the other options on earth to have more fun with maps.

(all maps are screenshots from earth, base maps for these screenshots can be found at this link https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/wind/surface/level/orthographic=-65.93,34.58,803)

Humpback Whales Love Anchovies

Humpback whales lunge-feeding on anchovies in Monterey Bay (photo by Robin Agarwal via Flickr Creative Commons license)

25 January 2023

Every autumn humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate past California on their way to spend the winter off the coast of Mexico. They will linger, however, if they find lots of anchovies. Humpback whales love anchovies.

The California anchovy population typically rises and falls in 10 to 30 year cycles based on ocean conditions and fishing pressure. It surged in 2013 when the New York Times made this video (click on the image below) …

Screenshot from New York Times article... Click here or on the image to see the video

… and surged again this summer. In June 2022 there were so many anchovies that people reported small fish raining down from the sky in San Francisco, probably dropped by passing seabirds. In July anchovies were trapped in oxygen-poor water and died near shore, making a smelly mess.

There were still lots of anchovies when the whales showed up this fall. Robin Agarwal took a whale watch out of Monterey Bay in early October and captured these scenes of lunge-feeding humpback whales.

The anchovies crowded close as the predators approached. The whales forced them to the surface where the tiny fish leapt out of the water to escape.

Humpback Whales lunge-feeding on Northern Anchovies (photo by Robin Agarwal on Flickr)

The whales opened their mouths and anchovies fell in.

In a surge year for anchovies, people feast too.

Anchovies at Valley Bar + Bottle Shop, Sonoma, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more about the 2013 anchovy surge in the New York Times: With Extra Anchovies and Whale Watching.

See more of Robin Gwen Agarwal’s photos here.

(humpback whale photos in Monterey Bay by Robin Gwen Agarwal on Flickr, Creative Commons license, food photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Reimagined Maps as Art

U.S. watershed map by Robert Szucs at Grasshopper Geography (image from grasshoppergeography.com press kit)

24 January 2023

About ten years into his career as a digital cartographer Robert Szucs decided to experiment with data visualization and learned how to create strikingly beautiful, digitally accurate maps. He calls them “Maps Reimagined” and explains,

While my maps are always scientifically accurate, I think of them first and foremost as works of art.

Robert Szucs, Grasshopper Geography Press Kit

His watershed maps became an Internet sensation a few years ago through digital sales on Etsy and news outlets including the Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine.

The U.S. watershed map above is so detailed that you can pinpoint Pittsburgh in the Mississippi watershed at the conjunction of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.

Grasshopper Geography U.S. watershed map, cropped to highlight Pittsburgh at the conjuction of three rivers

Szucs has also produced collections of elevation, forest and human population maps.

There came a point when I said I can’t look at another green-brown-white elevation map again. I needed some fun. I needed colours. And for not the first or last time, I needed to create the maps I wanted to see.

Robert Szucs, Grasshopper Geography Press Kit

This one dramatically illustrates that even the plateaus in the U.S. West are much higher than anything in the East.

U.S. elevation map by Robert Szucs at Grasshopper Geography (image from grasshoppergeography.com press kit)

See more maps and learn more about them at GrasshopperGeography.com.

(All images from grasshoppergeography.com press kit)

See The Green Comet … If You Can

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) imaged using 300mm F/4 lens, 21 Jan 2023 (photo by Auvo Korpi via Wikimedia Commons)

23 January 2023

A green comet that last passed the sun 50,000 years ago set off a flurry of stargazing on the night of the new moon, 21-22 January. Even though Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will pass closest to earth on 2 February it is best to see it now before the moon waxes to full on 5 February.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is so faint that it must be viewed in a dark sky and is best seen via binoculars, telescope, or camera with telephoto lens — for instance, birding equipment. The photo above was taken with a 300mm F/4 lens. Click here for information on where to look.

With magnification and a star map all you need is a dark sky, but finding one is increasingly difficult.

A study published last week in the journal Science examined 12 years of citizen science reports of the constellations seen with the naked eye. The number of constellations seen from 2011-2022 went down as sky glow increased from lights on earth. As Smithsonian Magazine explains, the brightness of light pollution increased at a rate of 9.6 % per year. “That’s equivalent to the brightness doubling every eight years.”

Previous studies used satellites to measure earth lights reaching outer space but they missed the effect of ground lights inside our atmosphere. So the problem is worse than we thought. For a video illustration, see the 2016 article below.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, we definitely have light pollution but our impossible hurdle is cloud cover. We have lots of clouds in the forecast for the next 10 days.

Pittsburgh 10-day forecast from weather.com app on cellphone (screenshot from Kate St. John)

Read more about the light pollution study in Smithsonian Magazine: Light pollution is drowning the starry night sky faster than thought.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot from weather.com on cellphone)