PO Box 9021, Wilmington, DE 19809, USA
E-mail: font@focusonnature.com
Phone: Toll-free in USA 1-8
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noting tours in Belize,
Brazil, Chile, Iceland

Atlantic Puffins during a FONT Tour in Iceland


FONT E-NEWS, June 22, 2011: Iceland & the Plight of the Puffin

FONT E-NEWS, June 8, 2011: A Rare Bird, a Rare Mammal, & more in Brazil

FONT E-NEWS, May 8, 2011: Past & Future Tours in Belize & elsewhere

FONT E-NEWS, March 6, 2011: What was "Mystery Storm Petrel" during a FONT tour in Chile 

Earlier FONT E-NEWS Bulletins in 2011 & 2010

The above link to E-News relating to FONT tours conducted in the Lesser Antilles, Costa Rica, Japan, and the Cayman Islands. 

A  Chronological List of Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours

FONT Past Tour Highlights

Narratives & Photo Galleries relating to Past FONT Tours

FONT E-News, Volume 21, Number 9
June 22, 2011
from Focus On Nature Tours

Iceland and the Plight of the Puffin

Our Iceland Tour in June 2011 was the 55th FONT tour in Europe, and our 17th tour in Iceland, where, over the years, we've conducted birding and nature tours during both the late-spring and early-fall.

One afternoon during the tour, we were along the northern Icelandic coast, right by the Greenland Sea.
In a small pool there, of cold water, a pair of little Red-necked Phalaropes, about 7 inches in length, were spinning around and flitting about.
In the next small pool to the right, there was warmer water, and in it, a pair of people, an Icelandic couple, enjoying the geothermal heat.
To the right, closer to the very cold sea, there was a warmer pool yet. It was that small pool of hot water that those in our group, who took a dip, enjoyed the most.

That duo of dapper little Red-necked Phalaropes would be there for only a relatively short time, just a few weeks to nest and raise their young. Then, they would fly away, to go to the ocean where they would winter by the Arabian Peninsula.

In the warm geothermal pools, we would be for just a short while, before a few days later, heading back to places such as Atlanta and Los Angeles.

But it was another creature in the area that would be traveling the furthest. After the Icelandic couple lifted out of the pool, they walked north along the nearby coastline, where, from the stones, a mass of shrieking Arctic Terns rose into the sky. That cloud of birds circled about loudly overhead. They were nesting among those stones, and when their breeding season would finish, later in the summer, they would fly away, but to go further than any bird on Earth, traveling over the ocean south rounding the southern tip of Africa and continuing east into the Indian Ocean.

Offshore from the stony coast, there was a rocky islet rising abruptly from the sea. On it, out there, a pair of Gyrfalcons was nesting, and there were breeding Atlantic Puffins atop the cliffs and sitting on the adjacent sea. Those oceanic waters were also the haunts of creatures such as the Greenland Shark, other fish, the Harbor Seal, and various whales and dolphins.

Most of the many Atlantic Puffins in Iceland are not along that northern coast of the country, but rather, they are locally abundant along the southern.

In the southernmost town on mainland Iceland, late in the evening, above the Hotel Lundi in the heart of the town, I noticed a Puffin flying out from the cliff. "Lundi" is the Icelandic word for "Puffin".

I watched the small bird fly with its little wings pitter-pattering rapidly. It headed toward a distant swarm of birds that were all flying about in the twilit sky by another cliff just above the ocean. I went closer.

That swarm, that at a distance appeared superficially as an evening mass of insects or bats was of course, as I just noted, and knew at the time, of birds.
And all of them were Puffins with their little wings fluttering rapidly. There were at least a thousand in the sky. and many more than that were on the water. Others were standing out by their burrows on the cliff-tops. It was going on midnight, but as it was mid-June, the lightness enabled me to enjoy the spectacle.

The place in Iceland with the most Puffins was not far away: an offshore group of 14 islands known as Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westmann Islands.
We went there the nest morning on the first ferry. What was more than a 3-hour (and sometimes rough) ferry-ride to the islands is now less than half an hour, from a new port.

From the ferry on the way to Helmaey, the only one of the Westmann Islands that is inhabited by people, about 4,000 of them, a flock of Manx Shearwaters was seen. In Iceland, that species only nests in Vestmannaeyjar.
Also seen from the ferry were Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and yes, Puffins.

Whereas there are people on only 1 of the 14 islands, there are birds inhabiting all of them, on sheer rocky cliffs and otherwise. When we took a boat-ride throughout the islands, we saw many.
There were 5 species of alcids. In addition to the Atlantic Puffin, there were Razorbills, two kinds of Murres (mostly Common, also some Thick-billed), and the Black Guillemot. We saw all of these on and by those shear rocky cliffs along with many Kittiwakes and Gulls and Gannets.

On Heimaey Island, where we spent most of a day, and a night, there's a place above a high seacliff that's said to be a place for Puffins. At that spot, there is a wooden hide, or blind, with openable windows, at a "Puffin spot".
When we first went there, during the day, there were Puffins in the area, but they were ALL below, well below us, on the water of the sea. There were none on the nearby grassy slopes above the cliffs.
When we returned later in the day, it was much the same.
But I remembered the previous evening's activity back by the mainland coastal cliffs, so I returned to the hide at about 10pm. And, then, at that time, the Puffins were coming in too!

So, I went back to the hotel to get the others, and soon, when we were inside the hide, there were Puffins outside, sometimes nearly within reach! There were well more than a thousand, for about 2 hours, before they started to go, individually or in small groups, back down to the ocean below.

What we learned, sadly, when we were in Iceland, and particularly when we were in the Westmanns, is that the Atlantic Puffin has not been doing well, for a few years now. It is becoming, and I must say sadly again, a species in peril.

Yes, the same bird that in Iceland is depicted so many places, as on postcards everywhere, on shirts and other garments, and on signs and in ads, is now in trouble. The bird, clown-like in appearance, called the Puffin, or Lundi, has been as common in Iceland as a caricature can be.

Referring to the "real thing", Iceland has the largest number of Atlantic Puffins anywhere, with over half of the total global population of the species residing there in the summer.
An estimated 3 million pairs of Atlantic Puffins have been breeding in Iceland each year - that's about 6 million birds. On average, 70 per cent of the total Icelandic population of Atlantic Puffins are breeders, so the total number in Iceland each summer has been from 8 to 10 million birds.

And about half of the Atlantic Puffins in Iceland have been in the Westmann Islands. As noted earlier, it has been the place in Iceland with the most - but not just the most in Iceland.
The Westmann Islands has been the place with the most Atlantic Puffins on Earth, with some 700,000 nesting pairs - that is, 1,400,000 birds, with each pair normally raising but one young bird per year.
So, it has been, on average, that about 20 per cent of the global population of Atlantic Puffins (1 out of 5) has nested on the Westmann Islands.

And the birds even had a new island there on which to nest. It was noted that there are 14 islands in the Westmann group. There were 13. That was until 1963 when a new island was created, as a volcano erupted in the ocean. On that island, called Surtsey, afterwards, Atlantic Puffins began making their homes.

But during more recent years, the Atlantic Puffin population has fallen so drastically that the species is being put on the Birdlife International "watch list".

Overall, during the last decade, there has been a 20 per cent drop (1 out of 5) in the species' population. And during the most recent years, the situation has worsened yet.

In 2007, Maria Frostic, an employee of NASA in the US, took a leave in July and August, and went to the Westmann Islands, intending to make a documentary film about medieval sagas. Instead, learning immediately upon her arrival how poorly the Puffins were doing during that nesting season, she did instead a film entitled "Plight of the Puffins" that aired the following year on television on PBS.

In 2009, it was in the news that on the Westmann Islands "very few Puffin chicks hatched and survived the summer".

When we were in the Westmanns in June 2011, we were told that in the summer of 2010, the Puffins on the islands again did not successfully raise their young. And we were told that the current 2011 season did not yet seem to be any better.
A reason for this, and also purported in that 2007 documentary film, is the depletion of the Puffin's food-source, a fish called the Sand-eel. From whatever cause, and maybe it's been said due to climatic change, that fish is now scarce where it used to be abundant. And where it is now scarce is where the Puffins are during their nesting season.

On the Westmann Islands during August, for years, there has been a tradition. Puffins are weak flyers, even at best. They do best when they take off into the air from the top of a cliff. Sometimes, young Puffins, after leaving their burrows, descent not to the water as they should, but instead into the town on Heimaey.
They land on a moist road or street as it appears to the water. In the evenings, when that happens, the children in the town go about and gather up the forlorn Puffins putting them in boxes to release them from cliff-tops in the morning. The child, who doing so, saves the most becomes the "Puffin Fledgling King" for a year. We were told that in 2010 there were no young Puffins for the children to rescue.

After my return home from Iceland, I looked a bit more into the situation regarding the Atlantic Puffins in Iceland. I found it written that the decline of the species has been due in part to factors such as "human persecution", pollution, and the reason that I had already been told, "a shortage in the food supply resulting from oceanographic changes". Due to the last of these, it's written that there has been "poor breeding success" and "a high mortality rate of young birds".

I found it said that the fish consumed by Atlantic Puffins include, as noted already, Sand-eel, Ammodytes sp., which is the majority of the diet of the chicks, and some forage species including juvenile pelagic fishes such as Herring, Clupea hareegus, and juvenile and adult Capelin, Maliotus villosus.

I also found in a non-nature publication that in 2010, at least 38 Icelandic fishing vessels each caught fish worth more than 1 billion Icelandic Kroner (or 8.6 billion US dollars), which was a new record. As a comparison, 28 vessels reached that goal the previous year, in 2009.
Relating to the Capelin, the small cold-water fish eaten by Puffins, after some years with meager catches, it is said that 390,000 tons will be fished this year, providing a needed boost to the economy and a good increase in exports.
A starting quota of 200,000 tons was issued when the size of the stock was first estimated. A further quota of 125,000 tons was later added. the quota is decided on the basis of leaving 400,000 tons of spawning Capelin in the waters to ensure sustainable stock.
A bit of Capelin biology: They come to the sandy shores of southern Iceland to spawn between the ages of two and six. After spawning, most die.
During the last 3 years, Capelin were scarce in Icelandic waters, with about 100,000 tons caught each year.

Hopefully, an increase in one of the prey of the Puffin will help the bird. And if that were to happen with the Sand-eel, the Puffin would have better times ahead. Optimism certainly is not in order yet. Only time will tell.

Mention was made earlier of a new island that was created in 1963. Another offshore Icelandic island disappeared back in the 1800s, and its doing so was at least partly a factor in the disappearance of a bird, referring to the extinction of the flightless alcid, the Great Auk.

The island of Geirfuglasker, where most of the Icelandic Great Auks bred, disappeared under the sea in 1830 during a volcanic cataclysm, resulting from an earthquake. Birds moved to Eldey Rock when their former home sank.
It was there, on Eldey Rock, off the coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula in southern Iceland, where the last of the world's Great Auks, a pair, were clubbed to death on June 3, 1844. Unfortunately, Eldey Rock was more accessible to men than Geirfuglasker had been.
Now, Eldey Rock is the site of the largest colony of Northern Gannets in Iceland.
During the FONT June 2011 Iceland Tour, we were on the coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, where we could see Eldey Rock, and where there is now a larger-than-life statue of the Great Auk. It's too bad that the bird is no longer "in life".

To read more about Iceland, in the second half of this narrative, click the following and read beyond what you've just read here:   JUNE 2011 FONT ICELAND TOUR NARRATIVE

From this link, you'll read about other nature & aspects of Iceland: reforestation, lepidoptera, mammals, including the Icelandic sheep & horse, birdlife, geology, glaciers, volcanoes, geothermal activity, waterfalls, sea-cliffs, the Midnight Sun, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Viking Age, Iceland's "National Day", and some traditional Icelandic food. All of these were part of our June 2011 Iceland Tour.

Our next scheduled birding & nature tour in Iceland is September 30 - October 8, 2011. At a good time for the "Northern Lights", Aurora Borealis, and birds in migration, including a number of possible vagrants.

Some other Upcoming FONT Tours, still with availability, include:
the West Coast USA, Washington State & central California, September 10-19, 2011

, September 24-30, 2011, for bird migration, prior to Iceland (the 2 can be combined)
, November 11-20, 2011, including the Andes, Chiloe Island, and a Pacific Pelagic
, December 26, 2011 - January 5, 2012, including the highlands & Tikal
, January 13-22, 2012, a little country with a lot of nature.

More tours, yet, are in the FONT website: www.focusonnature.com

Wishing you the best,

Armas Hill

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FONT E-News, Volume 21, Number 8
June 8, 2011
from Focus On Nature Tours

A Rare Bird, a Rare Mammal, & More in Brazil

We recently did our 49th FONT birding & nature tour in Brazil, during the last 2 weeks in May. It was in the southeast part of the country, including the more-inland area of Minas Gerais.

We've not done a Brazil tour previously in May. This one came about as a result of the earthquake and related problems earlier this year in Japan. We normally, in recent years, have gone to Japan in May.

During our May 2011 Brazil tour, much of the nature that we observed were birds. We found nearly 300 species.

The rare bird that we found was the Forbes's Blackbird. Generally, not many people have heard of it.
Partly that is because it only occurs in remote places in eastern Brazil.
And partly it is because as birds go, there's not much notable about it, aside from its rarity. It's simply all-black, with a slender bill, and a unique voice.

And though not many people have heard of the Forbes Blackbird, even less have seen it.
Again, there are not many of the blackbirds, with only a population probably of a few thousand.
That very small population is actually comprised of some very small subpopulations, spread out in the vast country of Brazil, in isolated places in the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais.
Again, the bird is mostly in remote places not often visited by birders who would be apt to recognize one totally black blackbird from another.

The similar Chopi Blackbird is common in much of Brazil. The Epaulet Oriole is widespread in Brazil. Its epaulets in parts of its Brazilian range are rusty, but appear dark, giving the bird an overall black appearance.

We were rather surprised to find our 3 Forbes's Blackbirds late one afternoon in the top of palm trees in the valley of a small river, in Minas Gerais, not that far from Serra do Cipo, a high plateau with some unique flora and fauna, including a rare bird called the Cipo Canastero, a species that was only described to science as recently as 1985.
We had found the Cipo Canasteo earlier that day, in the morning.

When we saw the Forbes's Blackbirds in the afternoon, their slender bills and distinctive call were both noted. Unfortunately, the birds were not documented by a photograph before they flew from the palm trees, calling as they went.

During the 130 or so years that the species has been known to exist, the Forbes's Blackbird has always had some mysteriousness about it. In fact, it's noted in the literature that even some of the blackbirds that Mr. Forbes found in 1880 were in actually Chopi Blackbirds rather than the Forbes's Blackbirds named after him.

True Forbes's Blackbirds have now been, to date, found at about 20 different places throughout eastern Brazil.

Whereas the Forbes's Blackbird lack color, many of the nearly 300 species of birds that we saw had plenty. A number of the tanagers, toucans, trogons and others among the Neotropical birds were colorful indeed.
Another icterid (a blackbird-type), the Campo Troupial, was with a brilliant orange coloration.

One of the most brightly colored birds during our tour was the attractive Swallow-tailed Cotinga. With yellow, black, and white nicely patterned in its plumage, this bird, with its long, forked tail, was one of the nicest to see.

Also, notable among the birds during the FONT May 2011 Brazil Tour, in addition to those already mentioned, were these:
Black Hawk-Eagle
, Black-bellied Thorntail and Hyacinth Visorbearer (two of the numerous hummingbird species), Three-toed Jacamar, Robust Woodpecker, Pin-tailed Manakin, Sharpbill, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Streamer-tailed Tyrant, Black-billed Scythebill, and Black-masked Finch.

Among these birds, the male Pin-tailed Manakin was truly a favorite, with its colorful plumage of red, black, white, and green, in addition to its orange eyes.
Other manakins were also seen well and enjoyed during the tour: the Blue and the White- bearded.
The second of these was one of the first manakins described to science in 1766 by Linnaeus in Sweden, Manacus manacus.
One can't help but wonder what a naturalist in Sweden thought of such colorful birds brought as specimens from the American tropics.

For us, in Brazil in May 2011, the manakins, along with the many other birds, made Brazil a nice place to be, but the tour was so much more with nice people at interesting places, along with some other notable sightings including in particular that of a very rare mammal, known as the Muriqui.

That rare mammal, with the Tupi Indian name, is the largest of the monkeys in the New World.
It was the Northern Muriqui that we saw, notable not just for being the biggest New World monkey, but for being one of the rarest mammals in the world. The total population of the species is about 500 individuals.

It's been said here that they are large. How large? Well, they measure up to about 5 feet when they hang suspended with their long arms. And these agile monkeys have a long, grasping, prehensile tail that is strong enough to support their entire body weight as they feed or socialize upside down.

Something else can be noted about the Muriquis' anatomy. Due to their diet, which includes leaves in addition to fruits and seeds, they have large intestinal tracts that give both the males and females a "pregnant look". So, while we've heard of "pot-bellied pigs", these, in essence, are "pot-bellied monkeys".

We were so fortunate to see and hear well a group of the Muriquis in a fine section of the Atlantic Forest that has been preserved because, for many years, it has been the home to these monkeys.

In that forest, since the 1980s, the Muriquis have been studied. From the University of Wisconsin, Karen Strier came and spent years doing so. In the 1990s, she wrote a book "Faces in the Forest - The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil", in which she described much of what she learned about the monkeys over the years.
After I returned home from Brazil in May 2011, I read her good book again, and a couple more things about the Muriquis I'd like to share here with you now.

They are peaceful creatures, almost lacking completely the belligerence that primates, especially social primates, often have.
are social, nearly always in groups, but it is rare for any of them to act aggressively. During more than 1,200 hours of observation during her first year with the Muriquis, Karen logged only a very few interactions that could be considered even remotely aggressive.
The societies of nearly all social primates in the world is based on dominance relationships. But the Muriquis differ strikingly from that typical pattern.
The most striking feature of Muriqui society is the tolerance that males display toward each other even when relating to females in the group.

Also, unlike so many social primates in the world, Muriquis don't groom one another. But they do offer friendly reassurances through touch.
They may lightly pat each other on the hand or foot when they pass in a feeding or resting tree. There's a photo in Karen's book of two wild Muriquis in a tree giving a handshake signifying a friendly greeting. Imagine two monkeys shaking hands!
And Muriquis embrace. They have a most impressive full-body embrace , in which two or more animals walk or swing toward one another and then flip upside down, so that they are hanging by their tails, face to face, while they wrap their arms and legs around one another. Such embraces occur in a variety of contexts.
More about these interesting, peaceful, and rare animals can be read in Karen's book.

I mentioned that we were fortunate to see AND HEAR the Muriquis. To me, at the time, they had a soft vocalization rather like that of a horse.
I read later in "Faces in the Forest" that when the scientists first went to the forest where we were, they asked the local people where the Muriquis were, and the locals took them first to the stables. Listening to the horses whinnying back and forth, they were told to walk in the forest until they "heard horses".

There are, in all, about a hundred species of monkeys known to be in Brazil. But among them, the Muriqui is special. It has been written that, as a conservation symbol, the Muriqui is for Brazil as the Giant Panda is for China.

Other mammals during our May '11 Brazil Tour included 5 other species of monkeys, all seen well: the Brown Howler (the rarest of the howlers), Black-tufted Capuchin, Masked Titi, Buffy-headed Marmoset, and Buffy-tufted Marmoset.
The Brown Howler and the Buffy-headed Marmoset are endangered species, as are the Muriquis, although not as rare.

Also seen during the tour was another mammal that's nice to see, the Maned Wolf. We saw it again, as we have during tours in the past, at a monastery isolated in the hills. As in the past, the Maned Wolf appeared there after dark.

In addition to the birds and mammals, there was also a good assortment of butterflies seen during our May 2011 tour in Brazil. That assortment included nearly 50 species.
But probably most memorable among them were, at one time, over a dozen green Malachites landing on bright red Poinsettia flowers in bloom in the countryside.

We'll be going to Brazil again in the future. Our tour scheduled for August 2011 is now filled, but there will be others.

If you haven't looked at the FONT website lately: www.focusonnature.com
There's a 3-part list & photo gallery of Brazilian Birds, reached from the lower-left of the homepage.
With 1,720 species. 1,065 of them during FONT tours. Noting where & when found.
And with photographs of about 200 species.
Also a list & photo gallery of Brazilian Mammals. With almost 400 species. About 70 during FONT tours.
Both of these lists & photo galleries, and others, are interesting to see.
When I was typing into the list the bats of Brazil, I was intrigued by one of the names: the Tailed Tailess Bat. Now that's something I'd like to see!

During our May 2011 Brazil Tour, our cumulative bird-list for Minas Gerais was raised to 465 species, with 14 "new for us" during our tours there:Capped Heron, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Violaceous Quail-Dove, Robust Woodpecker, White-wedged Piculet, Black-capped Becard, Rusty-backed Antwren, Palin Xenops, Black-billed Scythebill, Plain-winged Woodcreeper, Masked Gnatcatcher, White-necked Thrush, Forbes's Blackbird, Campo Troupial.

In Southeast Brazil (Rio de Janeiro & Sao Paulo), our cumulative bird-list was raised by 3 to 499 species. No, it's not 500 (yet), but it's a lot of birds!

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours, still with some availability, include:
Amazonian Brazil
, July 13-23, $US2,795
, August 24-September 5, $US2,395
West Coast USA
, September 10-19, $US 2,195
, September 24-30, $US 2,895
, September 30-October 8, $US 3,195
, November 11-20, $US 2,995
, December 26, 2011 - January 5, 2012, $US 2,795
, January 13-22, 2012, $US 2,495

Above prices are without flights.
Information about these, and other scheduled FONT tours, is in our web-site: www.focusonnature.com

Wishing you the best,

Armas Hill

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FONT E-News, Volume 21, Number 7

May 8, 2011
from Focus On Nature Tours

Past & Future Tours in Belize and Elsewhere

We recently enjoyed a tour in Belize, a small country in which there is a lot of nature, and many birds, to see.
To see photos of some of what we saw, please, click this link: 
or,  from the upper-right of our home-page, click the link under the photo of the Jabiru head.
In that file, you could also click to "more about the tour" and lists of birds and other wildlife.

Some of the narrative relating to that Belize tour follows later here, before the end of this e-mail bulletin.

Beneath the just-mentioned Jabiru photo and link on our home-page there's a photograph of the Moon by Barnegat Light, in New Jersey.
The Moon, in that photograph, was, that evening just over a month ago, the closest to Earth that it has been, and will be, in years.
During this month of May, for years (over a dozen) Focus On Nature Tours conducted overnight pelagic trips offshore from New Jersey, out about a hundred miles to the Hudson Canyon. During those years, fuel was not as expensive as it is today.
Below the Moon & Barnegat Light photo, you can click another link "Birds and Marine Life during FONT New Jersey Pelagic Trips" and read about what may have been our best pelagic trip ever, overnight May 25-26, 2003.

Relating to our pelagic trips, we recently received this in an e-mail from Maryland:

"I think of you every now and then, and remember your wonderful pelagic trips in the mid-90's. With them, amazing memories, and even now I can still say thank you."

And, a "thank you" from here for that, and for other similar e-mails that we have received during the last few months from people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

An unexpected e-mail came to us from California, not long ago, relating to one of our tours a while ago:

"We think of you and our time together (in Spain in October 2005) often, and hope that things are now going well.
That truly was a fantastic trip - I can't believe, thinking back, that we were able to put so many adventures into just a few days.
Still, I can think of the little European Robin and other songbirds drinking and bathing at the "waterhole", the haunting hoot of the Eagle Owl, the sort of spooky Griffon Vultures winging by at eye level, the Great Tit that perched on your arm after you pished it in, the sea of Flamingoes, the glimpse of the brilliantly-colored Kingfisher, the goofy Hoopoes moving their heads back and forth, the Storks, the rare Gulls, and SO much more.
You were a fantastic tour leader, Armas."

Again, thanks for that, and what impressed me so much was how well all of that was remembered, even years later!

With the downturn with the economy the last couple years, things have been more difficult than they were when we were in Spain back in 2005, but, be assured, we're doing our absolute best, now and as long as we can, to provide tours that would be as commendable, and would preserve such fond memories even years afterwards.
We've been doing birding & nature tours for over 20 years, and so we can do that.

Among our upcoming tours with still some availability:
June 9-18
Amazonian Brazil:
July 13-23
August 24-September 5
Washington State & California:
September 10-19
September 30-October 8
November 11-20
December 26 - January 5, 2012
For prices and itineraries, for these tours and more, please go to our website:

Our website has continued to grow with more in it than ever. On the left-side of the home-page, scroll down to lists and photo galleries with over 1,280 birds, mammals, butterflies, and other nature.

We've recently added more info into our Caribbean birds file, noting species in the Bahamas and Cuba. We have plans for some future tours in the Bahamas, and other islands, and hopefully someday, Cuba.
Also more has been added to files relating to mammals in Arizona and
mammals and butterflies in Europe.
When you can, please take a look.

In our last e-mail bulletin, we mentioned some bad effects from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami earlier this year, and in particular, some relating to albatrosses that nest on Midway Island in the Pacific.
Sadly, over 100,000 Laysan and Black-footed Albatross chicks perished there in the tsunami. And about 2,000 adults died.
The one Short-tailed Albatross chick was washed about 100 feet from its nest, but was returned to that nest by the wildlife refuge staff.
The parents were not seen for a while afterwards, but then, on April 23rd, the male Short-tailed Albatross was seen feeding the chick.

Now, about our most-recent tour in Belize:

Upon our arrival at the airport, getting our vehicle at "Jabiru Auto Rental" was truly an omen.

About an hour later, as we arrived at a place called "Crooked Tree", and from the causeway by the lagoon, we saw as many as 25 Jabiru at once!
During that day and the next, we estimated that we saw about 50 of the large Jabiru storks, about half of what is said to be the population of that bird in Belize.
And Belize has, certainly, the most Jabiru of any country in Central America.

During a previous tour at Crooked Tree, it's interesting to note that we saw no Jabiru, not a one. We had to go to another place to see a pair, with young, at a nest. That tour was also in the spring, but a notable difference in April 2011 was that it was drier than usual.

The lagoon at Crooked Tree, during our two days there, could be seen shrinking as the dryness and heat at the end of the dry season continued.

And as it shrank, that lagoon and the area were teeming with birds, thousands of them.
In addition to the dozens of Jabirus, there were hundreds upon hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants, Limpkins, Snail Kites, Jacanas, various egrets, herons, ibises, and other waterbirds. Among them: Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, terns, sandpipers, grebes and ducks, including Blue-winged Teal that would soon go north and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that would stay in the area if it did not dry up completely.

The fish and other food for the thousands of birds was concentrated in, and by, the remaining shallow water. Small Talapia, by the score, could be seen in the evening, leaping from and back into the water.

We were told when we arrived at Crooked Tree that the water level was too low for the boat-trip that we had planned to take to see the not-often-seen Agami Heron.
But we were not to be so easily deterred. "There must be another way", and the next morning there was, when we rode in a hardy vehicle across a grassy lake-bed that was a mile wide and eight miles long. At times, in that lake, there can be water as deep as 6 to 7 feet.

Then, beyond the lake, we continued in the vehicle through brush where there was not even much of a walking trail until we came to the creek, where, upstream, from quiet canoes, we saw, yes, the not-often-seen Agami Heron.

Also along that creek, birds that were with us included Boat-billed Herons, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, and some kingfishers of various sorts including the American Pygmy Kingfisher.

Prior to the creek, as we crossed the grassy lake-bed, we encountered a cow that had died, surrounded by dozens of Black Vultures. Atop that cow, there was an adult nearly all-white King Vulture.
As we re-crossed that lake-bed, on our way out, we saw two adult King Vultures.
Also, elsewhere in the grass, there was a Dickcissel, pausing on its way north, from South to North America. We don't see that species often in Central America.

When we were venturing back into the brush for the canoe-ride along the creek, I was reminded of some other such ventures "into the wild" during some of our previous tours in Central America.
The first such venture that came to mind was of another boat-trip in the Darien lowlands of eastern Panama, during which we also saw Agami Heron and American Pygmy Kingfisher, in addition to Red-throated Caracara, Crane Hawk, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, and Greater Ani along with other notable birds. And also, as we went along that stream in the forest with local "Indians", we saw a big Boa Constrictor.
During another such remote venture along a small river in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border, I remembered us seeing a number of "good birds" in an area where loud Scarlet Macaws nested. Swimming in the water by us, during that trip, there was a big
Baird's Tapir.

In all, during our time in April 2011 in the Crooked Tree area of Belize alone, we found a nice total of 118 species of birds.
Not only were the waterbirds plentiful, but we also saw a nice number of landbirds in the forest and other habitats. Some were migrants, notably warblers on their way north, but others were residents, including some "Yucatan" specialties at the southern edge of their range including: the Yucatan Jay, Yellow-lored Amazon, Red-vented Woodpecker, and
Gray-throated Chat.
Nice to see also were Rufous-breasted Spinetail and a Plain Xenops that maybe without realizing it, posed well for photographs as it fed, at eye-level, on insects on a branch.

To see a picture of that bird, and to read about other birds and places during our tour in Belize, again, go to that link on our home-page below the photo of the Jabiru head.
Also there, you can read about Manatees (from the "more about the tour" link), and see a nice sequence of photos of a Jaguar.

All the best,

Armas Hill

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FONT E-News, Volume 21, Number 5
March 6, 2011
from Focus On Nature Tours 

An Update in March 2011
Relating to a bird during the Focus On Nature Chile Tour in Nov/Dec 2009
What was "A Mystery Storm Petrel"
Now said to be a new species

During the ferry ride to Chiloe Island, on December 1, 2009, as part of the FONT Nov/Dec '09 tour in Chile, some storm petrels were noticed with more extensive white than expected on their vents/bellies.
What we did not know at the time was that earlier that same year, another group of birders (from Ireland: Seamus Enright, Michael O'Keefe, & friends), in waters in much the same area, also observed such similar storm petrels.

Now, more recently, this news:

Last month (in February 2011), during a 5-person expedition led by British seabird expert Peter Harrison, 12 of the "mystery storm petrels" were captured at sea near Puerto Montt, Chile. By so doing, that team has been able to confirm the existence of a new species.
According to Harrison, "These birds appear to be a new species, as they are so different from any storm petrels we know." There are 22 known species of storm petrels worldwide.

The following narrative, from the blog "Birding Abroad", relates more of the latest news:

Recent sightings of unidentified storm petrels in Seno Reloncavi, south of Puerto Montt, Chile, have been confirmed as a new species, as recently published in "Dutch Birding" (O'Keefe et al, 2010).
A team of biologists led (as noted above) by British seabird expert Peter Harrison, has just completed an expedition to that area of Chile.
The expedition followed Harrison's earlier examination of two skins of an Oceanites sp. housed in the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Those two skins had been described by Pearman as the first Argentinian records of Elliot's Storm Petrel, Oceanites gracilis galapogoensis (Pearman 2000).
On examining the specimens, Harrison concluded that the two originally collected at El Bolson, Rio Negro province, Argentina, in February 1972 and November 1983 represented a hitherto undescribed taxon and were probably the mysterious unidentified storm petrels of Puerto Montt, Chile, which is just 70 kilometers west of El Bolson.
Two members of the team of biologists, Chris Gaskin and Karen Baird from New Zealand, were both involved in at-sea captures and searches for the breeding location of the recently rediscovered New Zealand Storm Petrel (Gaskin & Baird 2005, Stephenson et al. 2008).
The Chilean expedition spent 4 days at sea in the Seno Reloncavi area, where they made use of chum or berley (fish scraps) to attract seabirds within range of the specially designed net-guns. These were critical to the success of the expedition and were developed in New Zealand for the capture of the New Zealand Storm Petrel.

Over the four days at sea, over 1,500 sightings of the new Oceanites species were recorded. To enable the scientific description of the new species, the 12 birds (as noted above) were captured for the collection of biometric data and samples of blood and feathers taken for genetic work.

The new species would appear to be most closely related to the Elliot's Storm Petrel, Oceanites gracilis. But in appearance, it is intermediate between the Wilson's Storm Petrel and the New Zealand Storm Petrel. It shows a distinctive pale upper wing crescent and a prominent white bar across the underwing coverts. Unlike typical Elliot's Storm Petrels, the white feathering in the ventral area is more subdued and restricted and does not extend to the upper breast. The wing measurements are also very different and show no overlap with the mainland Elliot's Storm Petrel.

The expedition team estimates a population of 5,000 to 10,000 birds in the Seno Reloncavi area, where the new taxon appears to be the most abundant of the resident seabirds, with flocks of several hundred individuals at chum slicks.
The timing of the expedition appears to have coincided with the fledging period as juveniles were among the captured birds, suggesting that breeding occurs in the Seno Reloncavi area, possibly beginning in November.
A wider search of the Seno Relanocavi and Golfo de Ancud area needs to be undertaken in both summer and winter.
Further analysis of feather and blood samples is expected to confirm this discovery and a full scientific publication is in preparation by the expedition team.
A series of photos of the new storm petrel in Chile is in this FONT website. There's a link to it on the homepage. The photos in the series are by Michael O'Keefe, taken in 2009 prior to the FONT tour. 

What follows here now does not relate to any recent FONT tour, not to any upcoming tour, but it has enough importance that should be mentioned:

Another Whooping Crane was shot to death last month, in February 2011.
In the last 14 months, a total of 6 Whooping Cranes have been killed.
The crane shot last month had learned to migrate by following an ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration, a group formed to increase Whooping Crane numbers. That crane, a breeding adult, made its first migration to Florida in 2004, wintering there for 5 years until it started spending winters on the marshes around Weiss Lake in Alabama, where it was found dead. And that crane is said to have had a chick!

3 Whooping Cranes
, 2 males & a female that hatched in 2010, were found shot to death in Calhoun County, Georgia, on December 2010.
In November 2009, a Whooping Crane hatched in 2002 and led south by an ultralight was found shot to death in Vermilion Couty, Indiana. That crane had hatched and raised the first Whooping Crane in the eastern United States in more than a century.
It should go without saying that the Whooping Crane is an endangered species, and it must be said that the species should not ever be shot, anywhere.

In the Spring of 2011, a FONT birding & nature tour scheduled for Texas: April 24-May 2, 2011.
At the beginning of that tour, a visit will be made to the Aransas Refuge, along the Texas Gulf Coast, the traditional wintering site for Whooping Cranes. Usually, in late April, they are all back where they breed in Canada, but sometimes there's a lingerer.

Some nice news:

Right now, there is an active Harpy Eagle nest in Belize, the first there in a long, long time.
With or without a Harpy, Belize is a great place to bird. If you'd to join us there in either April 2011, or  in 2012 in January or March, please let us know.

If you haven't had a chance to read the narrative abut our February 2011 birding & nature tour in the Caribbean, on the islands of Antigua, Barbuda, Dominica, and Guadeloupe, (in the e-mail bulletin prior to this one), it can still be read in the "Past Tour Highlights" section in this website, reached from the link on the homepage.

Good birding,

Armas Hill

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