The Quetzal Quest

Costa Rican montane cloud forest

It was 1530 when Tecun Uman decided he and his Mayan people had had enough from the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. He entered battle armed with just a bow and arrow and a beautiful green bird perched on his shoulder for good luck. He was fighting the armored conquistador mounted on horseback. It was unfair from the start and after a heroic fight Tecun was run through with a spear and killed. The quetzal, however, survived, landed on his vanquished master’s chest and bathed himself in the red blood. The previously all-green bird now donned the amazing resplendent colors we see today, but as a sign of grief it vowed to never sing again until the land was free.

Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno (photo by Ryan Acandee, CC by Wikimedia Commons)

When a birder chooses to visit Costa Rica for the first time the Resplendent Quetzal is usually the number one target on the list. Olivier, our guide, and my birding companion Mel, designed the itinerary with a two-night stand at the beautiful Savegre Hotel and Spa with this in mind. It’s in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, several winding miles off the Pan-American Highway. The gravel road descended into a valley along the Savegre River to the lodge, still nestled 7000 feet above sea level.

The Quetzal inhabits the montane cloud forests of southern Mexico and Central America and is a cavity nester, often taking over and remodeling the vacant homes of woodpeckers. In fact, our guide and many of the hotel’s guests knew the location of an active nest just up the road. The cameras were loaded and with great anticipation that was our obvious first stop at the break of day.

Collared Trogon, Trogan collaris. (female, orange-bellied)

The Resplendent Quetzal is the largest bird in the Trogonidae family. All of the members are large and colorful, and so very different than any of our birds. They are generally sedentary and if you’re lucky you may spot one between the branches posed for a photograph. We were fortunate to see seven of the ten Costa Rican species on our recent trip.

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

The resplendent male is an amazing emerald green that seems to glow in the sunlight. The lower chest is red with the lower body and tail showing areas of contrasting white and black. The male sports long green plumes that trail behind in flight. When perched these feathers hang several feet below the bird. My first photos were zoomed too tightly before I realized the extent of the tail.

When we arrived at the hollow tree there was already a small crowd gathered staking it out. I noticed that among the obvious birders there were many brightly dressed tourists without binoculars and cameras other than their smart phones. This bird clearly draws fans from far and wide, even the non-birders. The watchers told us that in the very early dawn light the male emerged from the hole and flew off, and was replaced with the less resplendent female. We could barely detect her head in the dark hole, and after a short wait and several poor photographs we decided to resume the quest for the male elsewhere. Apparently their tag-team approach to nesting and incubation is characteristic of the species.

Quetzal hole with female barely visible

Less than a mile up the dirt road we found a parked tour bus and a much larger crowd. This time there was clearly more excitement in the air with scopes and cameras aimed out over the ravine toward a dense tree. Somehow someone had spotted the well camouflaged bird and cameras were clicking away. I had great difficulty seeing the bird but finally took a few shots through a small gap in the foliage, zoomed to the maximum. Suddenly the bird took off and flew right over the road and crowd, with feathers streaming behind. I wish you could have heard the squeals of delight from everyone. I was much too slow to get a flight shot, but he landed just a hundred yards down the road. I was swept in the stampede toward the new perch. This one was a bit better, but his back was still turned to the crowd. I never did get a photo showing that red breast.

The Quetzal Crowd

You have to wonder at the selective advantage of evolving such bright colors and long gaudy feathers. They must make take-offs and landings difficult. I’m told that the iridescent green feathers resemble wet leaves and helps the bird hide in the forest from his main predators, the hawks, eagles, and owls. I’m sure the female quetzal must have played a critical role in this evolution, likely demanding the resplendent display when choosing a mate.

My photo of the Resplendent Quetzal

Unfortunately the population of the Resplendent Quetzal is decreasing, but not yet severely depressed. It’s estimated that up to fifty thousand birds remain. Their primary threat is from deforestation and loss of habitat. The conquistadors have long since moved on, Costa Rica is free, and once again the wicka-wicka call is heard as this spectacular bird flies by.

A Costa Rican Birding Adventure

Scarlet Macaw, Ara macao

How can this small tropical Central American country, the size of West Virginia, be home to so many birds? It claims 903 species, significantly more than all the mainland United States. In thirteen days of what this somewhat out-of-shape, 70 year-old birder would call hard core birding, we saw 381 different birds.

Pale-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus guatemalensis

I was fortunate to join my Florida birding companion, Mel, and be guided by Costa Rican Olivier Esquivel as we travelled and sampled most of the various habitats of this beautiful land. The narrow country is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Shifting tectonic plates have raised towering volcanic mountain ranges aligned along the center of Costa Rica, exactly at right angles to the northeast hot and humid trade winds of the Caribbean.

Olivier, me, & Mel

My initial impression of the land was from the air as we landed at San Jose. Other than the coasts and Central Valley, this is sparsely populated and rugged terrain. As Olivier said, “if they ironed the country flat it would be the size of Texas”. As we careened around the hills and switchbacks, often on gravel roads, this became quite clear to Mel and me.

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Eumomota superciliosa

When the prevailing trade winds meet the the uplands they unload their moisture on the Caribbean slope. This creates the specific wet habitats both in the lowland jungles, and further up the cooler slopes. On the opposite Pacific side the uplands and coast are dry; all this explains the many varied habitats, home to differing and often unique bird species.

The view from Copal Lodge

We birded and sweated in the steaming lowlands and on the next day donned down vests, birding at 10,000 feet. The various habitats, along with the numerous migrants, make Costa Rica a bird-friendly locale and a paradise for birders.

Costa Rica with our birding sites highlighted

The country is a safe, stable democracy, being one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Its economy was initially dependent upon agriculture, but more recently has become a Mecca for ecotourism. My visit was a second attempt, the first cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Crimson-collared Tanager, Ramphocelus sanguinolentus

Olivier and Mel designed an ambitious itinerary of dawn-to-dusk birding, with even an evening session for nightjars and owls. We sampled most of the habitats and rarely entered a restaurant, morning, noon, or night without binoculars or cameras; you never know when a new bird will show up. Our lodging was generally spartan. As Olivier said, why waste money on luxury when we will only be stopping for some sleep. If I go again I might upgrade the accommodations somewhat.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent, on the Tarcoles River

One’s first exposure to the stunning colors of the tropical birds is unforgettable. The Toucans, Parrots, Hummingbirds, Tanagers, and Trogons are spectacular and so different from our home species. You wonder why the bland Clay-colored Thrush is the national bird. As Olivier quipped, “that’s what you get when you let politicians pick the bird”.

Emerald Toucanet, Aulacorhynchus prasinus

Most of our lodges had surrounding gardens, short trails, and feeders that would have satisfied me with photographic opportunities for hours, but Olivier wanted us to also sample the shier species that lived more remotely. We might trek three or fours hours, up hills and deep into ravines in order to find a few more birds, but at the end of the day there was great satisfaction with these more rare sightings.

A roadside stop

I can give future travelers a couple hints. Bring rain gear as it can rain at anytime, especially in the eastern half of the country. Bring a flashlight for nighttime birding, but also for power failures at the lodge. Apply fly dope and sunscreen liberally; you’re only a few degrees from the equator. Watch out for poisonous vipers; they may be hanging from trees at perfect head height. And lastly, don’t stand on a highway of army ants as I did. They can spoil your whole trip.

Violet Sabrewing, Campylopterus hemileucurus

On the last day of our adventure, Mel and I, weary but happy, were looking forward to the flight home. But Olivier, ever the birder, was looking for a few more species to add to our trip list. While I was humming, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” he was pointing out new birds, even in the Walmart parking lot right next to the airport. We could not have found a more energetic and knowledgeable guide.

Welcome and refreshing Coconut milk on the go

In future posts I hope to share more observations of Costa Rican birds and describe some of the specific sites we visited. Till then.

Book Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, published by Norton, 1970.

I’m no different than you. My reading list includes books that share my interests, be it travel, politics, history, warfare, medicine, sailing, weather, or astronomy. The book doesn’t have to be entirely about these subjects but must at least touch on some of them as the plot unfolds. And, of course, if the book includes birds and birding, all the better. Author Patrick O’Brian has managed to include everyone of these topics in his saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, starting with the first volume, Master and Commander, and continuing for twenty more. I’ve read and savored them all, multiple times.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

As you know, once you become a birder you look for the feathered friends constantly, birding here, there, and everywhere. I’ve known some who identify birds by song during telecasts of golf tournaments. I’ve had many a meal disrupted by a bird flying by the dining room window. We birders don’t always make the best company at mealtime. I perked up when I first ran across Stephen Maturin who demonstrated these same bouts of birding distraction, even while shipwrecked or dodging icebergs in the South Atlantic or French cannonballs in the Bay of Biscay.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

The Master and Commander series is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the naval warfare of the tall sailing ships of the era. The plots take you to the seas around every continent, including Antarctica where the ship and sailors are practically encased in ice. These are not just about naval engagements, but include indepth descriptions of the ships of the period, celestial navigation, weather, geography and the politics of the cultures encountered.

Magellanic Penguins, Spheniscus magellenicus (photo by A. Sternick)

The protagonists are Jack Aubrey, a swashbuckling sailor who over the series rises from midshipman to captain, and eventually admiral, but not without countless scrapes with both the enemy and his commanders, a gambling habit, debt and debtor’s prison, and a fragile family life back on the home turf. His hero is of course, Lord Nelson whom he emulates in many ways.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The other is his best friend and companion, the complex Stephen Maturin. He is the illegitimate offspring of an Irish officer and Catalan lady, talented physician and the ship’s surgeon, a naturalist and renown collector of specimens of both flora and fauna. His leading avocation, however is birding which he practices all around the globe. Stephen has also been recruited by British intelligence and his espionage adds to the complex story line.

Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango

Maturin’s medical exploits on board, especially after an bloody engagement are remarkable, and include a craniotomy to relieve a subdural hematoma as the aghast crew looked on. Large pox, from indiscretions while in port, and scurvy are the crew’s two most frequent maladies. His ship mates go out of their way to protect their beloved surgeon as he could barely swim, was clumsy, and frequently fell overboard. Stephen battled a long addiction to laudanum and infatuation with the beautiful Diana Villiers, Jack Aubrey’s cousin.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

The unlikely friends first met sitting next to each other at a chamber music performance of Locatelli’s C-major quartet in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon. Large and loud Aubrey, crammed into the formal wear of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, unconsciously beat the time of the musicians, greatly annoying the civilian surgeon Maturin, who finally asked the officer if he must beat the rhythm, at least do it correctly. It almost led to blows, but instead it was just an inauspicious start to a deep friendship that lasted twenty volumes and throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. Some say it is the greatest friendship in modern literature. Their classical duets, Jack on violin and Stephen on cello, were often heard from the captain’s cabin, at any time and in any ocean.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

For the sailors and naval warfare aficionados in the crowd, O’Brian has at least one battle and an encounter with severe weather in every volume. The primary tactics of naval warfare then were to gain the windward side of your foe and then decide whether to bombard from a distance, or close, board, and fight hand-to-hand on the deck. Aubrey suffers many wounds over the years, and is always patched up by Maturin. The ships encounter typhoons, dead calm in the equatorial heat, and severe cold near the poles, all described in detail by O’Brian.

King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus (photo by A. Sternick)

Stephen Maturin is a 19th century birder par excellence. He trained the crew to rouse him whenever another pelagic bird appeared and was especially enamored by the various species of Albatross. He spent a happy few months shipwrecked and marooned with Aubrey and crew on Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean, happily observing and collecting specimens while the rest planned their escape. His collections usually made it home to England; his intelligence commander was especially fond of beetles. On another voyage Stephen lived several months among the Boobies; his scientific paper describing these birds made him famous in ornithological circles. Once, in Boston, he was given beautiful large paintings of American birds by a then unknown Creole artist by the name of Audubon.

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii (photo by A. Sternick)

The volume I’m currently reading is The Fortune of War, number six in the series. Aubrey, Maturin, and a few surviving sailors have just been rescued after several days adrift in a lifeboat off the coast of South America. Their ship had just burned down to the waterline and sunk, taking with it all of Stephen’s latest specimens. The rescuing ship was the HMS Java, which soon encountered the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” and lost to that new American frigate in a frightful battle. Jack and Stephen were taken prisoner and shipped to Boston where further drama awaits.

Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua (photo by A. Sternick)

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is now deceased and regrettably the adventures have ended. I have also read his incomplete twenty-first volume, left on the author’s writing desk when he died. One must ask, how can a person know so much about so many different topics, in such fine detail, and present them to the reader with such style? Just his descriptions of the ships’ rigging bogles the mind. It’s said he rarely sailed and I’m not sure if he even birded. His writing and research are incredible and highly recommended.

Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus

In the next decade when I reread the series one last time I intend to keep a list, a Stephen Maturin life list of his birds described in these novels. My photos in this post, and those of my colleague Andy Sternick, are some of Maturin’s birds, but most I have yet to see. They are just more items on the list in my overflowing bucket.



I live on the Chesapeake Bay, a famous large estuary on the east coast of the United States, but oh, so different from the fjords we recently explored along the west coast of Norway.  The fjords are also estuaries, which by definition are bodies of water open to the tidal seas at their mouth but also fed by freshwater sources upstream.

The Chesapeake’s freshwater sources are the mighty Susquehanna and smaller Potomac and Choptank Rivers, whereas the Norwegian fjords are fed by countless, spectacular cascading waterfalls draining the surrounding snow-capped peaks.  The Chesapeake is a shallow, mud and sand bottomed drowned river, south of the last glacial advance, whereas the nordic fjords are deep, steeped walled rocky valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

I don’t believe I’ve visited a more beautiful country than Norway.  Along with the many fjords penetrating the west coast, some as far as 100 miles inland, there are thousands of small islands just offshore.  You can envision the marauding Viking ships slipping out to sea from a fjord or island to rampage Northern Europe in the 10th century, or a sinister German U-Boat sneaking into a deep fjord during the more recent 20th century conflagration.


This is not a travel blog but let me make this suggestion.  “Norway in a Nutshell” is a wonderful one-day tour of the best of southwestern Norway.  Starting in Bergen, on the west coast, we took the Bergen Railway inland and switched to the Flam Railway at Myrdal.  The slow train revealed Kodak moments at virtually every turn.  After a short stop at Kjosfossen falls we arrived at Flam and boarded a comfortable boat to explore the narrow Naeroyfjord (a UNESCO heritage site) and equally beautiful Aurlandsfjord.

Kjosfossen Falls, 305 feet

We stopped counting and photographing the waterfalls and cozy villages nestled at the shoreline at 100.  At Gudvangen we boarded a bus for a harrowing cross country ride on switchbacks and finally caught the Bergen train for home at Voss.  It was a spectacular day.

Fred, always after the perfect shot angle

Fred, Mary, Suzanne, and I left Bergen by rental car and headed east to explore this land on our own.  After the unseasonable heat in Russia we were happy for the cooler air but were surprised by a snowstorm in late May as we crossed over a Nordic mountain range.  I was constantly on the lookout for birds (but didn’t see many), while my companions were much more interested in Stave Church sitings.

A Stave Church

These are medieval wooden churches with a characteristic post and lintel construction, built between 1150 and 1350.  Most of the surviving structures are in Norway.  At one small village a young man was found waiting alone inside one, so happy to finally see some interested tourists.  He proudly shared with us his impressive knowledge of the history of the church.


We arrived at the village of Solvorn with enough daylight to appreciate the serene beauty of this small town nestled along the Lustrafjord.  Our hotel was the quaint and picturesque  Walaker, the oldest inn in Norway, dating back to 1640.  Nine generations of a family of innkeepers have expertly maintained this gem.  Unfortunately the elder innkeeper had just died and the hotel’s flag flew at half mast.  But another generation of hosts, I assume the 10th, stepped up and welcomed us.  Each comfortable room had a view of the fjord and the dinner and breakfast were simply superb.

Our only regret was that we had only one night to spend at the Walaker.  We vowed we would return someday for an extended visit, but you know that is unlikely.  I did some evening and early morning birding along the fjord seeing just 7 common species,  but there was a stealthy bird with a vaguely familiar call singing from the tall tree just in the Walaker’s front yard.  I finally caught a glimpse of the elusive European Pied Flycatcher, a life bird for me just a few days prior in Finland.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba

Our European sojourn was to end in Oslo, but not before I hired one last guide to show me a few more Scandinavian birds.  I found Simon Rix through his website,

Simon Rix

Simon is an Englishman who migrated to Oslo 18 years ago and has become the “go-to” birder for southern Norway.  I was lucky to book him for a half day, but unlucky as it rained most of the morning.  Even so, I had a great time.  He showed me 49 different species, including a flyover of a singing Cuckoo, apparently unusual for that time and place.  Yes, it sounded just like your grandmother’s cuckoo clock.


We birded the Fornebu peninsula, just west of Oslo, and the site of the city’s old airport.  The Luftwaffe landed here during their invasion of neutral Norway on April 9, 1940, but were finally ousted from the site and country by Allied forces in 1945.  The abandoned airfield has been reclaimed by nature and is a birding hotspot and favorite for Simon.

Fieldfare, Turdis pilaris

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

On my last day abroad I arose early and headed to the Palace Park in Oslo.  It was finally sunny and a chance to put the Panasonic Lumix G9 and 50-200mm Leica lens to a good test.  The birds were largely common but cooperative with Fieldfare and Wood Pigeons galore.  But I did add one bird to my life list when a Hawfinch proudly posed for me near the palace as if bidding me Godspeed for our long return flight home.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

This post ends my accounting of our memorable one month excursion to Russia and Scandinavia.  I promise to return to my more typical birding and photography format soon.



Helsinki                                                                                  Photo by F. Widding


When Heikki Eriksson emailed me the start time of 0300 for my birding adventure in Helsinki I thought it must be a misprint.  I know we birders like to start early, but 3:00 AM?  No misprint.  I forgot we were in the land of the “white nights”, latitude 60 degrees North, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska.  Heikki was gifted by his ability to bird-by-ear so the dim, predawn light was no problem for us, or at least for him.  The bird calls for me were all foreign, but interesting, none-the-less.

Heikki Eriksson

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Saint Petersburg on May 22, traveling along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, through low, boggy terrain, passing Vyborg near the border.  I’ve come to learn of the historic significance of this frontier south of Lake Ladoga, separating the great bear of Russia from Finland.

“Before the Storm” by H Munsterhjelm, 1870                         (at the Ateneum)

From the 13th until the early 19th century present day Finland was part of the powerful Swedish Empire.  Russia replaced Sweden as “empire-in-charge” in 1809, initially granting the Finns considerable local autonomy.  They, in turn, gave their women the right to vote in 1906, I believe the first people to do this.  The Bolsheviks granted Finland its complete independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the subsequent first half of the 20th century was anything but tranquil for the Finns.

Mew Gulls, Larus canus

The nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 allowed Russia to annex the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while Germany was busy fighting further to the west.  Finland however, also a Baltic state, resisted this Russian intrusion, preferring to fight to maintain their recent independence.  Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and for over 5 months the Finns heroically fought before succumbing to their superior foe.  They refer to this struggle as the “Winter War”, differentiating it from later events of WWII.

Finland’s eventual defeat by Russia and the reluctance of other western democracies to come to their aid in 1939, partly explains their uneasy alliance with Hitler from 1941 to 1944.  This period is referred to by the Finns as the “Continuation War”.  Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” they had few choices, ultimately distrusting the Stalin more than Hitler.  The Finn’s battlefield support for Germany however, was decidedly lukewarm, until they finally changed sides against a defeated Germany in 1945.  This turbulent and controversial chapter of Finnish history is well chronicled in “Finland’s War of Choice, The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II” by  Henrik O. Lunde, published in 2011.

A Birder’s Balance Beam somewhere near Helsinki

The weather in Helsinki was exactly the opposite of what we experienced in Russia.  The clear blue skies and unseasonable Russian heat were replaced by a cool, cloudy, drizzle, clearly not a good test for my new mirror-less camera and lens (Panasonic Lumix G9 camera and Leica F2.8-4.0 50-200mm lens).  Heikki picked me up at 3:00 AM sharp and we headed west along the coast to the nearby principalities of Espoo and Kirkkonummi where we birded several fields, tidal wetlands, and scattered woodlots.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus

Much of the serious birding in Finland is done further north than Helsinki, even above the Arctic Circle.  Visit the website of Finnature, a guiding company, at to fully appreciate what this land has to offer.  They are the people that connected me with my guide.  I only had one birding day to spare during this initial visit, but Heikki certainly made the most of it, even close to the city.  I especially liked seeing the Goldcrest and Eurasian Blue Tit.  Spotting a Ruff in the wetlands and a flyover by an Arctic Tern were also notable.  We saw 76 different species in 9 damp hours, 28 of which were lifers for me.

Common Golden Eye, Bucephala clangula

Soon after sunrise the cold rains began.  The new equipment is weather sealed but even they must have their limits.  As the rain increased I reluctantly retired them to the car after only a few good shots, continuing the outing with just binos, visual memories, and eBird documentation of the sightings.

Yours truly

Every time I hire a guide I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn.  Heikki displayed exceptional knowledge of birdsong and many of the early birds were “heard but not seen”.  I had no problem ticking them however, since most were seen later after sunrise.  His other skill was long distant ID by GISS (general impression, size, and shape), so helpful on the viewing platform.

Northern Goshawk and Cooper’s Hawks by J.J. Audubon

A memorable surprise for us both was a sudden, swooping, stealth attack by a Northern Goshawk, just feet away, taking a poor unsuspecting dove in broad daylight.  I liken it to the team of pick pockets who surprised me the prior week on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg.  The only difference was they just got my wallet; the dove lost much more.

When we were not birding or strolling Helsinki we discovered the fabulous Ateneum Art Museum.  Rainy day–not a problem, just head to the gallery resplendent with the works of Finnish artists and other masters.  Or you can relish the great seaside cuisine and take pictures of your plate as my “foodie” companions were apt to do.

Tallinn Estonia

We also took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland 50 miles, to the ancient and historic city of Tallinn, Estonia.  Near the city wall I finally ID’ed that common American Robin-like bird hunting for worms on seemingly all the European lawns.  It’s a Fieldfare; no big deal to the locals, but a life bird for me.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

After 3 short nights in Helsinki it was off to Bergen, Norway by plane.  Just scratching the surface of fascinating Finland has enticed me to return; perhaps to the area above the Arctic Circle.  I knew I was leaving a “birdy” country when I visited the airport toilet before boarding the flight and they were playing birdsong on the public address system.  Heikki would have known the exact bird.

The Pigeons of D-Day

American Cemetery at Normandy


This week we reflect upon and marvel at that heroic invasion of France 75 years ago, and the sacrifice of so many that resulted in the defeat of tyranny.  Much has been written about the campaign.  I have just read “Double Cross, the Story of D-Day Spies” by Ben Macintyre, which describes the incredible web of allied secret agents (double, triple, and even quadrupled in allegiance) that created a cloud of deception regarding the time and place of the D-Day invasion.  Surprisingly, this ruse even extended to the use of carrier pigeons.

Rock Pigeon, Columba livia

English Flight Lieutenant Richard Walker was obsessed with pigeons and headed MI5’s “Pigeon Special Service Section, B3C”.  He loved his birds and extolled their magical ability to find their way home from as far away as 700 miles.  But all birds are not created equal, he said, with only one in a hundred showing the industry, courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness to fulfill its wartime mission.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

I’ve always considered pigeons and doves to be on the lowest rung of avian intelligence.  Their heads seem too small for their bodies, and their eyes all show that vacant bewildered stare.  But they do possess the amazing homing urge that both we and our enemy were able to appropriate during both World Wars.  I’ll need to reconsider my assessment of the species.

British troops releasing a pigeon.

Even the Germans used carrier pigeons, and Walker sensed that Britain was falling behind in the “Pigeon Race”.  The German Pigeon Federation was run by the Gestapo and Himmler, himself a pigeon fancier.  In 1937, before the war, the Germans brought 1400 pigeons to England to stage a Great Pigeon Race back to Germany.  Walker suspected this race was actually a cover to train the birds to cross the English Channel successfully and return to the homeland, as they may be needed to do exactly that in the impending war.

Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto

Walker and MI5 were convinced that German spies would infiltrate the English countryside, arriving with sacs of trained homing pigeons.  These birds could take vital information back to Germany more discreetly than even the wireless radios.  Walker felt he may be able to detect these spy birds among the ubiquitous native pigeons by their purposeful, straight line flight to the east, or perhaps by their cooing with a German accent.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

Secret messages were tagged to the birds by various means.  A tiny hole could be burned into the quill of a flight feather and tiny rolled rice paper inserted.  Or a Morse Code message itself could be written on the quill with indelible ink.  Captured enemy pigeons were treated as prisoners of war.  In 1942 a falconry unit was established on the Isle of Scilly to intercept the German birds crossing the channel.  Unfortunately the falcons could not tell friend from foe and as a result many British pigeons perished.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Streptopelia orientalis

The Allied success on D-Day depended in large part upon the Germans believing that the Normandy exercise was merely a feint, and that the real invasion was yet to come at Pas de Calais, southern France, or even in Norway.  An elaborate deception scheme in the spring of 1944 called “Operation Fortitude” involved fake tanks and airplanes throughout England, fictitious units trading misleading messages, and double agents sending inaccurate reports back to Germany.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

As a bizarre part of the operation, pigeons were dropped by parachute in corn-containing cardboard boxes throughout France, hoping the Germans would capture the birds and read the fake messages heralding an invasion at Pas de Calais.

White-winged Dove, Zenaida asiatica

During the D-Day landing itself a Royal Air Force pigeon by the  unlikely name of Gustav brought back news of the early hours of the invasion.  Released at Normandy, Gustav battled strong headwinds and enemy fire to come home to roost in its loft at Portsmouth.  It made the journey in a record 5 hours and 16 minutes, bringing back the message of initial success of the invasion.  Gustav was rewarded the Dickin Medal for his performance, but later died when his handler stepped on him while cleaning the roost.

Monument at Omaha Beach

We sometimes forget that an Allied victory on D-Day was not assured.  Eisenhower prayed that Rommel and Hitler would be duped by Operation Fortitude and keep their powerful army dispersed in France.  As Ike told his departing troops, “the eyes of the world are upon you.  The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”  Both sides realized that final victory or defeat for the entire war could be determined in the initial hours on these beaches.  Thank God, the deception worked and the Allies were successful, but only with great loss of life and countless acts of heroism.  I’ll never forget our visit to this hallowed battlefield several years ago and strolling among the endless rows of white crosses.  This was a great victory of brave humans–the pigeons, although very interesting, played only a small role.

Best Bird Photos of 2018

Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Myiozetetes cayanensis                      Panama


Where did the year go?  As we age each year accounts for a progressively smaller portion of our lifetime.  For me it was 1.5% this year.  Maybe that explains the racing clock.  As my life list approaches 1000 I have less and less time to photograph those other 9000 birds.  It’ll never happen.  Life lesson:  just treasure each year and photo as its own gift.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna                                Florida

Most of my birding this year was domestic, with frequent visits to favorite local haunts.  Panama, this November, was the exception and supplied me with countless photo-ops of new and colorful birds.  I vowed, however, to not let those avian superstars dominant this post.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris                      Florida

In the course of the year I take 20 to 30,000 bird photos, quickly deleting over 95% of them.  That still leaves 1000 “keepers” that are cataloged by family and stored for eternity or until my hard drive crashes.  An initial run through those yielded about 50 or 60 finalists.  The hard part is trimming that list down to 25 for this year-end post.  I hope you enjoy the result.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata                      Florida

Each photo has a back story.  That “cover shot” of the flycatcher from Panama is not really an exotic bird, but just struck my fancy with the ruffled feathers-look and interesting composition.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias                  Maryland

Each winter I try to visit the Ocean City, Maryland jetties to see what the wind and surf are blowing shoreward.  It is usually a brisk but rewarding outing.  Generally my shots from there show the seabirds swimming away, probably spooked by the telephoto lens and large lumbering birder.  The resultant rump shots are not great, but this year I hunkered low among the rocks and got some shots with them coming in for a closer look at the crazy birder.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis                    Maryland

Common Loon, Gavia immer                               Maryland

September, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, yielded great landscape shots but was a little wanting for avian photos.  I was struggling at dawn with some eiders in the surf, but they were hopelessly backlit by the rising sun.  Two crows were mocking my efforts from behind.  Finally, turning around to shoo them away, I noticed that the light was just perfect for a crow shot.  Not great birds, but a pleasing, well-exposed photo resulted; and they seemed to enjoy their 15 seconds of fame.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos                PEI, Canada

It’s extravagant to include two shots of any birds, but the colorful Eastern Meadowlark is a favorite of mine, often striking a photogenic pose.  My best shots of them are from the Dinner Ranch, a beautiful wide-open space in south central Florida, far from the maddening crowd.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna             Florida

Let me add some ordinary yard birds to the posting.  The mockingbirds are the yard’s apparatchiks par excellence, one patrolling the south half and his comrade working the north side. They’ll chase away anything larger and threatening, but seem to temporarily meet their match when the kingbirds arrive each spring.  The wren gets the prize for best yard vocalist, while the cardinals add local color.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos        Maryland

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus            Maryland

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis                 Maryland

What bird portfolio is complete without some flying shots?  The swans and eagle were active during my recent trip to Blackwater NWR in Maryland, and the gawky stork, of course, graced the airways of Florida.

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus                                   Maryland

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus                               Maryland

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana                    Florida

The birds of prey on the Floridian fenceposts strike two quite opposite poses.  The caracara is confident of his appearance and proud of his status in the avian hierarchy, whereas the vulture hangs his head in shame.  Actually both humbly survive on roadkill.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway             Florida

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus                   Florida

Feeding shots always add some interest.  The gull and unlucky crab were seen on Nantucket, while the Anhinga and unfortunate sunfish were residents of a south Florida marsh.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                                          Nantucket

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga                            Florida

I know a bird photographer worth his salt is not suppose to post posed shots, but I offer these anyway, for better or worse.  Isn’t it fascinating how a bird is so often found in a setting similar to its own coloring?  The pleasing background blur or bokeh is sought by photographers for these portrait shots and results from using a wide open aperture giving a narrow depth-of-field in focus.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia                                Maryland

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum                               Florida

I’ve included a few shots because they remind me of key events of 2018, like the fledgling of the nuthatches from Mary & Gene’s feeder, or finally finding and photographing the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker with Andy at Babcock-Webb Preserve in Florida. There was the fallout of migrating warblers this spring at Naples Park, and, after years of trying, I finally got a decent photo of a Brown Creeper from the Blackwater NWR.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla                     Maryland

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis    Florida

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina                           Florida

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana            Maryland

And lastly, let me add a few more colorful birds from Panama.  That trip with these new tropical life birds, as well as the heat and humidity of Central America are still vivid in my mind.  I’m reminded of it daily as I scratch the persistent chiggers, so loathe to finally leave me alone.  Onward to 2019.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes lucidus    Panama

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis          Panama

Crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica  Panama

Birding Panama, The Canopy Tower

Green Honeycreeper, Chlorophanes spiza


I arrived in Panama at dusk with just enough time to go through customs, locate the driver, and arrive at the Canopy Tower in time for the introductory dinner to the WINGS tour.  The other 9 guests, hailing from throughout the U.S. and U.K., had beat me to this famous birding destination and were clearly excited at what they had already seen in just a few daylight hours.  My catch-up birding had to wait until dawn.  The plan was to meet on the observation deck at sunrise for a pre-breakfast session.

The Canopy Tower

It was a little like a childhood Christmas Eve–I couldn’t sleep.  So about 5:30AM I lugged my camera and telephoto lens, binos, and scope up several flights, through the dining area, and up the ship-style stairs and hatch, onto the observation deck.  It was still dark but I could barely make-out the canopy below.  I was alone, but someone had stationed several pots of hot coffee there.  This was going to be a great week.

Dawn on the deck

Sunrise brought out the other guests, the guides, and of course the birds.  They came fast and furious, the birds that is; almost too much of a good thing.  It was difficult to keep up with all the sightings called out by fellow birders and guides alike.  The laser pointer was a great help in locating the often sleuthy birds hiding in the thick canopy.  I saw our familiar migrating warblers, now in their winter home, but the real treats were the colorful tropical residents I had never seen or photographed.

Golden-crowned Spadebill, Platyrinchus coronatus

The tower is a reclaimed former U.S. Air Force radar site built in 1965 and abandoned when the Canal Zone was transferred to Panama.  Luckily Raul Arias de Para had a vision for this “giant beer can” and acquired it in 1996, transforming it into a mecca for birders and ecotourism.  The lower floors are for lodging, each room with a window opening to the rain forest.  The upper floor houses a large dining room, lounge, and library.  The tower sits on top of a tall hill within the Soberania National Park, about 2 miles from the canal.

Breakfast in the Tower

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

Ants figure prominently in the taxonomy of Panamanian birds.  There are Antbirds, Antpittas, Antshrikes, Ant-Tanagers, Antthrushes, Antvireos, and Antwrens.  What’s their schtick?  Even the tropical novice trudging through the rainforest can’t help but notice the numerous ant highways traversing the trails.  At first you see a long line of upright leaves, seemingly moving by magic.  Closer inspection shows the leaves are carried by Leafcutter Ants, heading to who knows where.

Spotted Antbird, Hylophylax naevioides

The birds don’t eat the crusty ants themselves, but have learned to follow the ant swarms, ambushing the other hapless creatures that are fleeing the marauding Army Ants.  We birders in turn seek the birds, that seek the insects, that escape the ants.  Some claim that you can hear an approaching ant swarm as their million of feet rustle the leaves on the jungle floor.  In short, when encountering an ant swarm, get ready.  The birds can’t be far behind.

Red-capped Manakin, Pipra mentalis

I was in Panama this November, near the end of the rainy season.  Rain, sweat, dew, puddles, mud, humidity, and any other form of moisture you can imagine were part of the experience.  No AC, nothing stays dry, just get use to being hot and damp in order to enjoy birding in the rainforest.  I even had difficulty keeping my eyeglasses and lenses from fogging, often when that special “rare bird” was making an infrequent appearance.  You can’t win them all.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes spiza

Shining Honeycreeper, (female)

What is it about the tropics that fosters so much spectacular color in its resident birds?  Oh, we have our Cardinal and Jays, but most of our residents pale against the tropical gems.  The Blue Cotinga, various Manakins, Trogons, Motmots, and Honeycreepers startle one when first seen.  Then there are the iridescent Hummingbirds–we saw 10 species of these beauties during the week.

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Amazilia edward

Birding in the thick jungle, and bird photography in particular are difficult.  Good guides are invaluable, and we had two of the best.  Gavin Bieber, from Tucson Arizona, has been guiding in Panama several times a year for 10 years.  His patience and expertise were readily apparent, and several in our group had birded with him before.  I particularly appreciated his knowledge and discussion of avian taxonomy, explaining in the field how a particular birds fits into the greater classification scheme.  His birding banter, both serious and in jest, made these day-long jaunts wonderful.

Whooping Motmot, Momotus subrufescens

Common Tody-Flycatcher, Todirostrum cinereum

Our local guide was Danilo Rodriquez Jr., a member of the Canopy Tower staff.  How does such a young person become such an expert birder?  His whistles and tweets could seemingly mimic and call-in any species.  I still can’t figure out how he spotted that Black-and-White Owl high in the tree, or that Great Potoo hugging the trunk.  Between Gavin and Danilo I felt we were birding among the giants of their profession.

Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena

The Tower was our base of operation for the week, but the guides also took us to famous near-by hotspots including the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Pond, Gamboa, Colon, and the amazing Hummingbird House of Jerry and Linda Harrison.  I’ll have to leave a description of those to another day and post.

White-necked Jacobin, Florisuga mellivora

I know, it’s not about the numbers, but they are impressive.  Panama, a small country at the narrow intersection of two continents, has recorded sightings of 978 bird species, many more than the entire U.S.  Many of our northern birds reach the southern limit of their ranges at the isthmus, and likewise, many of the South American birds reach their northern limits in the same area.  This creates an inviting avian menagerie in Panama.  My total count for the trip was 211 species, (I would have seen a few more except for foggy glasses) and my life list jumped by 148, but who’s counting.

Birding With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine


When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.