01 January 2015

1 Morning, 3 Antpittas....ECUADOR (10th Nov.)

Having already dipped into a variety of habitats, and locations, already on this sojourn in southern Ecuador, we continued on the same tack, moving to a new elevation (around 2600m in the wet cloudforest of the temperate zone), and site: Tapichalaca. This corner of southern Ecuador was known to pioneer of Ecuadorian birding, but really hit the headlines in 1997, when an esteemed team of birders (that included Robert Ridgely among them), heard something they did not recognize, calling from a bamboo thicket on a steep slope...
They did, what only they could do in this situation; they searched for the bird, but the thicket, was, well, thick. So they moved to the only other option available to them, they made a recording of the bird, in the hope that playback would bring the bird into the open, so that they may know what had been calling. In doing this, they caused one of the greatest ornithological discoveries of the 20th Century to occur. They played the call of the bird back at the sound, and watched, with mouths agape, as a large antpitta jumped into view, and one that was clearly "new", sporting a black-and-white face pattern, unlike any others in the family, not only in Ecuador, but anywhere! Rightly, this news spread fast, hitting the news in a number of international newspapers even, and thus began an exodus of birders to see this new bird; now known as the Jocotoco Antpitta
Resulting field work proved that the bird was undetected, as it was, indeed, rare, as well as being extremely secretive, and prone to long periods of silence, while it hid away in thickets of bamboo on precipitous slopes of the Andes, making finding them, to say the least, challenging. With all this as a backdrop, we set off to the reserve, which was formed to protect the habitat of this bird, Tapichalaca. With photographers in toe, you would think this would be daunting, the idea of photographing a bird of an elusive character, in troublesome terrain and habitat. However, a rash of antpitta feeding stations have been set up, first in Ecuador, and later spreading into Colombia, Peru and Brazil. This ultimately led to the rangers in the reserve following suit, and managing to habituate a pair of these hulking antpittas, and they have subsequently become one of the easiest antpittas to see in Ecuador, in spite of its rare status. Few days go by, in this reserve, without one or two of these handsome forest birds showing up. So, I arrived confident we would be able to photograph this species, but was not expecting to have a further 2 species if antpitta at an antpitta feeding station set up behind the lodge, just weeks before our arrival. This was, to understate things, a nice surprise to find out when we rolled in to the lodge on our first evening!
Thus, we began our day, just after dawn, (and breakfast), watching a Chestnut-naped Antpitta bouncing around in the open just behind the lodge, while one of the lodge rangers tossed worms in its direction. This peaked the interest of a shyer, Undulated Antpitta, which was wary, until the larger Chestnut-naped Antpitta hopped back into the forest, when this species descended too, and picked up what that species had left behind. All of this happened down to within just ten meters of us! With two antpittas bagged we took a short drive, and an uphill walk, to another feeding station deeper within the forest, where the, now "expected", Jocotoco Antpitta, hopped around in front of us with little car for our raised cameras or our raised voices in the excitement of it all! One morning, 3 antpittas, there were no complaints coming from us, after this. Actually, the first two species appeared, again, behind the lodge, in the afternoon, when they gave me my best shots, in much improved light from the early morning gloom. While the antpittas were the clear standouts of the day, we were also wooed by a Spectacled Whitestart encountered as we returned from our third antpitta too...
Our last stop on this whistlestop photo tour of southern Ecuador's best birding/photo sites, we dropped in to one of the most highly regarded lodges in the region, Copalinga Lodge, perched on the edge of Podocarpus National Park...

31 December 2014

Birding with the Stars....ECUADOR (9th Nov.)

I guess we've all heard of "Dancing with the Stars", and so why not Birding with the Stars!?

Anyway, after leaving the dry, Kapok-studded, deciduous woodland of Jorupe behind, we climbed up higher in the Andes to the reserve of Utuana, tucked away out of sight of most passers by. The reason for our visit was abundantly clear; hummingbirds, and 2 very special ones indeed, which are specialties of the south of Ecuador and northern Peru...Luckily, they are both straightforward to find at the feeders within the forest, a thirty minute walk in from the main road. However, that is all that is straightforward about these birds; they are far from ordinary looking, both dazzlingly beautiful, especially the Rainbow Starfrontlet, which has been known to make grown men weep! Here are a few snaps of what we enjoyed over a very exciting lunch deep within the reserve, with not another tourist sole around....Their "dowdy" companion (for nest to that species, anything looks under-dressed), was a handful of Purple-throated Sunangels.
 Next up, we were on the trail of one of Ecuador's most famous birds, the Jocotoco Antpitta, a bird completely unknown to science until 1997, when a certain Robert Ridgely spotted one, and the path of Ecuadorian bird tourism and conservation was changed irreparably...

29 December 2014

Flirting with Peru...ECUADOR (8th-9th Nov.)

After finishing up with the "parakeets of gold" in Buenaventura (i.e. El Oro Parakeets), we were soon on our way heading south, in the direction of Peru. We stopped just short of entering Peru, but could see the Peruvian hills lurking in the distance, as we stopped in at another wonderful reserve of the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation: Jorupe. I have been going to Jorupe since 2005, before the foundation built their fantastic lodge, Urraca Lodge, or "Jay Lodge" (when translated), named after one of its most prominent resident, the steely blue and Ariel white, White-tailed Jay. While we had been in wet, humid evergreen forest in the foothills of the Andes just before, we moved away and into a remarkably different habitat; we now stood among largely leafless deciduous woodland, dotted with giant gnarly Kapok trees. While the ground underfoot had been positively damp in Buenaventura, here in Jorupe it was parched; it had not rained in more than 2 months! This is a joy of southern Ecuador; remarkably different habitats in close geographic proximity.
In reality the birding, in general, within Jorupe, was relatively slow, compared to previous visits. However, the feeders, were magnetic, with action all day long. Some 13 different bird species visited during our time there, some of which were species that never visit feeders anywhere else in the world, giving us great photo opps. of some local species. 
First off, I really need to show the flagship bird of the reserve, the beautiful, and bold, White-tailed Jay, a species confined to the dry Tumbesian biogeographic region that covers southwest Ecuador and northern Peru...
Another near constant at Jorupe's brilliant feeders, was the Whooping Motmot, named for its, well, whooping, calls...
I had been secretly hoping that one of the lodge's rarer birds was attending the feeders at the time; Pale-browed Tinamou, a usually extremely secretive bird (again, an endemic species, only known from this region of southern Ecuador and northern Peru). However, on talking to the lodge's knowledgeable local guide, Leo, it became clear it had not been around for a matter of weeks, and so the feeders were looking to be forlorn of this bird. Therefore, imagine my surprise when this individual ignored local advice, and sauntered out into the open...
As well as grain and fruit attracting birds at the main feeders, the lodge also has a series of hummingbird feeders. However, do not be fooled into thinking that these are for hummingbirds; nope, while we were there there was not a single hummingbird in sight within sight of the feeders. However, we were not complaining about this, as instead of hummers, the visitors involved two gaudy species if orioles: Yellow-tailed and White-edged Orioles...
We took a ride into the frontier town of Macara, where people were walking the airport, as it has been out of action for years; in between the town's people out for a walk though, a young male Peruvian Meadowlark roamed the edges, and Pacific Parrotlets dotted the roadside wires...
Away from the feeders, it was oppressively hot, so much so that little was active after a few hours after dawn; all I saw away from there was a single uncooperative Watkins's Antpitta, while at night the tiny Peruvian Screech-Owl emerged to perched aside the lodge, below eye level...
Next stop was Utuana, back up in the mountains among montane forest, which came equipped with extremely colurful hummingbirds...

24 December 2014

Mining for Parakeets...ECUADOR (5th & 6th Nov.)

My custom photo tour continued, spending these days in and around Buenaventura reserve in southern Ecuador. This reserve has been set up by the fantastic Jocotoco Conservation Foundation, that operates lodges, which then funnel back money to conservation, in order to purchase ever more much needed land for protection in Ecuador. The reserve covers a range of elevations in the foothills of the west slope of the Andes, and contains an exciting mix of birds of the Choco biogeographic region of the north, with others more typical for the south.
This Jocotoco reserve, like their others, has been set up to save some threatened species, particularly in this case, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, El Oro Parakeet, El Oro Tapaculo, and Ochraceous Attila, among others.
We worked the dirt entrance road for periods in the morning and afternoon of our first day, which has patches of sparse trees, allowing better light conditions than the deep forest. While this proved challenging photography overall, due to long periods of inactivity, we had some good results by the end of our time there. We did well for raptors in this regard, managing to photograph a Laughing Falcon, quite literally, laughing at us; and also several Gray-backed Hawks, an impressive hawk that is a regional endemic. I also managed to fluff my lines there, as far as photographing quality birds go. I managed to tape in the scarce Ochraceous Attila to the perfect perch, only to find that my camera settings had changed, due to a dial turning while rubbing against my body shortly before, unbeknown to me. Thus, as I went to examine what I thought would be killer shots, I found, to my dismay what had happened. A great, and rare, opportunity to photograph this ginger flycatcher had passed me by! 
Luckily though the group I was with did get it, which brought some relief and compensation. Also along the road there we chanced upon an atypically static Squirrel Cuckoo, a common species that I had not yet photographed well, and was new for the group too. Our time along the road also yielded a Western Slaty-Antshrike (recently renamed Black-hooded Antshrike), and Fasciated Tiger-Heron standing, frozen, by a rushing creek. However, it may best be remembered for a glorious Chestnut-mandibled Toucan posing in a treetop.
Periods around the lodge itself were punctuated by photo sessions with the hummingbirds and other birds and animals that visit the feeders. At the sugar feeders Brown Violet-ears and Green-crowned Brilliants preened their immaculate plumage, various Violet-bellied Hummingbirds glowed beside the feeders, and Green Thorntails displayed their namesake feature, in between frantic bouts of feeding; and every so often Green Honeycreepers stole in and robbed sugar water from the hummingbirds. 

Also beside the lodge was a spritely Common Tody-Flycatcher, which seemed to declare it's territory every few seconds, and a more placid Saffron Finch beamed from the bushes too. The less subtle of the visitors though were the boisterous band of Rufous-headed Chachalacas, and some bold White-nosed Coatis, which have become a regular lodge fixture in recent years.
The toughest photography was when we entered the deep forest, although we did this not because we were masochists, ready to punish ourselves, but because we knew in order to photograph one special bird, that is where you needed to be. As we descended the trail to a narrow river, we could hear the deep cow-like moos of a displaying male Long-wattled Umbrellabird, and it did not take long to locate it at a traditional display ground. Strangely only one male was present, but he was all we needed to gain great shots of this extremely odd bird.
Our final time at the reserve was spent seeking the rarest and most emblematic of Buenaventura's birds, the El Oro Parakeet. This bird was only formally described in 1988 by Robert Ridgely "The Great", who has done so, so, much for Ecuadorian birds through his scientific research and conservation work. The birds name means The Gold Parakeet, in reference to the province of Ecuador, where gold has been mined (i.e. El Oro). Getting to see the bird was straightforward; nest boxes have been erected, and while the birds were not, at that time, nesting, they do regularly return to the boxes and around the boxes even when not nesting. So we saw them no problem, but were thwarted in our photo attempts by heavy low cloud. It took two visits, and then the bright sunshine on our second visit led to more than satisfactory shots of this extremely rare bird that is confined to with the borders of Ecuador.
Our next stop, believe it or not, was to yield yet more photos still. One of the joys of birding Southern Ecuador is the variety of habitats encountered over a relatively short distance. So far we had traveled into mangroves by boat, visited wetlands, and evergreen forested foothills. Next up was another very different Jocotoco Conservation Foundation reserve, Jorupe, set within dry wooded hills, carpeted in deciduous trees...

22 December 2014

It don't matter if you're black-and-white...ECUADOR (1st Nov.)

I had been way too long this year, following hip surgery, office-bound, and city-bound. By November I was free to return to normal life, such that it is. And so, I set out on tour with a person that I had guided before, from Sri Lanka, who also brought his good friend from Malaysia. Two remarkably different looking Asians, being guided by an "Englishman abroad", in Ecuador; we must have looked quite an odd crowd! My Sri Lankan friend had been with me photographing birds in northwest Ecuador, and this time he was interested in sampling the very different avian riches of Ecuador's "deep south". We started out in the city of Guayaquil, set out on a boat trip through the Manglares Charute shortly afterwards, but by the end of the day had climbed out of the coastal plain and up into the foothills of the Andes, and the wonderful Buenaventura reserve.
The mangrove boat trip was not particularly impressive, and was a bit of an experiment to see what we could photograph. We had some successes, with close ups of Snail Kite, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, and numerous Cocoi Herons, South America's answer to the Great Blue Heron/Grey Heron. On the way out from the boat trip a roadside Peruvian Pygmy-Owl had us out of the car, and brandishing cameras in a heartbeat. We also got to see the area star attraction, Horned Screamer, for which the bird is most famous for among birders, being rare and local in Ecuador. 
After the long journey from the coast, we pulled into the Buenaventura reserve, an area of foothill forest run by the excellent Jocotoco Conservation Foundation. This reserve was set up principally to save much needed habitat for the rare and endemic El Oro Parakeet, and other rare species found within its boundaries like Long-wattled Umbrellabird, El Oro Tapaculo, and Ochraceous Attila. As we bumped along the entrance road, with heavy rain coming down in the late afternoon, we noticed a bedraggled figure perched, unwisely, on an open dead branch, where a Bat Falcon, had clearly taken the full force of the downpour. Before we sat down for lunch we were adding another bird to the trip list and photography list, when one of a regular pair of Black-and-white Owls called repeatedly with the sense that it was trying to make absolutely sure we could locate it.
A great end to good opener; 2 owls, 1 day, I like those numbers!!!

More from Buenaventura to come...