30 December 2012

"Cream Tea" Birding...UK (30 Dec)

Spent the day with the "Cream Tea Birder" (cream teas are a big feature  of the cuisine in the southwest of England), Chris Townend, scouring East Devon for birds. With news of a first year Iceland Gull we checked the shore for it mid-morning, did not find it, so went on a "Cirl hunt" instead, picking up 3 Cirl Buntings, a bit of a Devon specialty. Nice to see after THREE years of not visiting this area. The news came through that somehow we had managed to miss the Iceland Gull and it was indeed there. Returning with a grudge burning deep inside  we found it this time, although the harsh light made it tough to shoot. This was the best I could manage. However, we were less fortunate with a flock of "jedwoods" or (Bohemian) Waxwings at Exeter which had departed before we got there. All we saw was a bird-less berry tree just begging for a waxwing to be present. We finished with a brief Eurasian Woodcock and a flock of Fieldfares heading to roost on a windtorn heathland.

Some final East Devon birding beckons tomorrow before I head back to "Big Smoke" (i.e. London), where I really hope I connect with some of those blasted waxwings!

27 December 2012

2012 FLASHBACK: Formosan Pheasants...TAIWAN (May)

After the madness of spring migration at Magee, watching warblers in the company of thousands of other joyful birders, I WAS to switch to something entirely different; I say was as China, and more specifically, the Chinese government, put paid to these plans. My original intention was, after a long spring season in the US, to have some downtime-a whole week in fact-watching cool Asian birds on the island of Taiwan, or "Formosa" (meaning beautiful), as the Portuguese called it. However, what was originally planned as a week had to be seriously cut back-to a mere few days-when the Chinese government closed a key site for my Sichuan tour that followed directly after my Taiwan time. So instead of a leisurely week mopping up the island's endemics, I had just two days chasing around with now-Taiwan resident, Keith Barnes, before I had to jump ship to the Chinese mainland early to do some last minute scouting for a Sichuan tour that had been put seriously off kilter with the actions of the government!

Keith very generously donated his time to show me some of "his" beautiful island, where we focused on the cloudforests of Da Xue Shan, as he reckoned, quite accurately as it turned out, we could rack up endemics at pace there, even in the limited time available. We arrived to truly awful weather. Apparently the climate had been balmy up until that day, when the heavens opened and remained open, and pouring, for my entire time on the mountain. Keith's phone packed up due to water damage, and his mood darkened with each new, ever more intense, wave of rain, but we ploughed on and got quite the list of birds (over 20 endemics!) Of course, my main targets were the kings of the mist, the gaudy pheasants that the mountain is famed for. Da Xue Shan supports two endemic pheasants, both of which had become easy in recent times due to two feeding stations set up for them by the local rangers. However, Keith and I were horrified to discover bright shiny new signs warning that feeding of birds was now prohibited, and would be accompanied by a hefty fine! I would have been prepared to pay the fine ordinarily, but it was simply too steep to contemplate doing. Nervously, we approached one of these feeding areas at the given time, 4pm, and walked straight into the real "king of the mist" a male Mikado Pheasant, who clearly had trouble reading the signs and was wandering the area searching for any scrap of food it could find! It was extremely approachable, and extremely beautiful decked out in deep, glossy blue, and sporting a bright scarlet eye patch....

The following morning, and after having bumped into a further 2 male Mikados as we descended towards our lodge the previous afternoon, we were to try for another pheasant, at another former feeding area (which also boasted another prominent sign warning against feeding them). Would this one be so oblivious of the changing nature of the feeding area, and be put off by the blatant lack of sustenance there? I waited in the dull light of dawn, which revealed another gloomy day of rain interspersed with heavy mist and fog was to be upon us once more. With the dingy weather my mood darkened and my pessimistic streak rose prominently to the surface, being very far from  what could be described as "contained"! For some reason, Keith though, was positively upbeat, and optimistic that the Swinhoe's Pheasants would be oblivious of the ever-changing park rules, immune to park bureaucracy, and turn up anyway. I hoped beyond hope he was right; I had dreamed of this pair of delectable Asian pheasants for many long years, and did not relish the other option: scouring trails for a brief glimpse of a glamorous tail disappearing into the bush at high speed. While I sat there mentally biting my nails to a nub, Keith looked coolly on, without a whimper of despondency in him. This quickly turned to knowing satisfaction when a gorgeous male Swinhoe's Pheasant walked out from the forest and stood stock still on the roadside. TWO magical pheasants in two days, the two undoubted top draw endemics of Taiwan, in just two whirlwind days on the island. I was more than happy, and left with memorable memories, captured to flashcards to enjoy time and again when I look back at two wet, wet days on Formosa, which really is a very beautiful island....

Next up, the Chinese mainland awaited...and Sichuan with its lure of tasty cuisine, and even tastier birds...

26 December 2012

2012 FLASHBACK: The Great Annual Migration...USA Apr-May

I could not mention highlights of a year without mentioning migration, the Great Annual Migration that goes on each and every spring in eastern North America, where we get to see mobs of shorebirds lining the shorelines, and trees adorned with songbirds in their very brightest garb. I am fortunate to be involved in two major spring stop over sites in the US: High Island no the Upper Texas Coast, and Magee Marsh on the edge of the Great Lakes in Ohio. Therefore, I get to witness this staggering event every year. While some of it is predictable no two seasons are the same, with a surprise Yellow-green Vireo spicing up proceedings in Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks Sanctuary on High Island, and a lifer Henslow's Sparrow and a handful of Kirtland's Warblers keeping things interesting in Ohio. 

But in spite of these surprises, it is actually the run of the mill spring fare that I enjoy the most, from the first showstopping glowing yellow Prothonotary Warbler of the spring, to the gatherings of peeps along the Texas shore, to the breathtaking Blackburnian Warbler that dares you to look away, these are all images I expect to see every year, and I would be bitterly disappointed NOT to partake in every year. Spring migration is a special event, a spectacle to behold, and should never, ever, be taken for granted. The vibrant colours, rich songs, and spectacular flocks are all things we should revel in and yearn for in those long months they are not with us....I hope to be "in the mix" once more in spring 2013, which with the wind howling, and the temperature dropping seems an age away right now!

More 2012 flashbacks on the way, though this time from farther east...

25 December 2012

2012 FLASHBACK: Sumaco Ecuador...March

My first "big" trip of 2012 was with two birders from California, Laura and Betty, the latter of which has a distinct fetish for hummingbirds (and who can blame her?!) So we spent many hours enjoying the kaleidoscope of color provided by the constant feed of hummingbirds at a number of lodges in Ecuador. I am well-used to the regular "feed' coming in to the feeders at Tandayapa Bird Lodge on the western slope of the Andes, although this trip provided a rare treat for me, to wander over to eastern slope of the Andes and visit the Wild Sumaco Lodge, which is the eastern equivalent of Tandayapa: feeders are literally packed with action each and every second of daylight, with hundreds of individuals of over twenty species; indeed in our time there we managed to see TWENTY THREE different species coming to their feeders alone. 

Some of my favourites are shown here: the outstanding Gould's Jewelfront which comes complete with a band of fiery orange splashed across it's chest, the punky Wire-crested Thorntail, which would seem to be more at home in a cartoon than in real life; and I simply had to include (by comparison) the relatively dowdy, and less flashy Blue-fronted Lancebill, which was my very first encounter with this species....Among the other delectable species visiting were Ecuadorian Piedtail, Napo Sabrewing, Sparkling Violet-ear, and Booted Racket-tail.

More FLASHBACKS to come from 2012 very, very soon....

23 December 2012

Rosy Day in the Andes...ECUADOR (14 Dec)

Having enjoyed the paramo, above the treeline in the Andes, and the temperate and subtropical forests below that, it was time to drop further, into the Andean Foothills around the reserve of Mashpi. This particular area has risen to prominence as a hotbed for some rare and local Choco endemics, and has therefore developed into a "standard" stop on tours for endemic-hunters. The unusually rich and moist forest here is often draped in thick mist and cloud, making visibility difficult, but that is just the reason so many of these rare species are there. However, we were blessed on this day as we had good weather, and even better birds. A reserve has recently been set up in the area and a private lodge built, which is extremely expensive and excludes all but the most affluent people from staying there. Luckily, as this day proved, many (if not all) of the best birds can be found outside of the fenced property. 

The first of our targets to fall was Moss-backed Tanager, a species we were to see repeatedly and well throughout our day there. This must be the Moss-backed Tanager capital of the world, and this species is now genuinely expected at Mashpi. A fleeting moment with an Indigo Flowerpiercer frustrated for a while, but was more than compensated for later when we watched another feeding low in some flowers for 10 minutes. By the end of the day we had seen one or two more too. Shortly after the flowerpiercer (another Choco endemic and target), was in the bag, we nailed another of the specialties with the firs of four Orange-breasted Fruiteaters for the day, which always takes your breath away when you catch sight of a male and his gaudy breast that lends the birds its name. In between these sightings we enjoyed another Toucan Barbet for the tour, and also found another local specialty, the Pacific Tuftedcheek, which suitably had it cheeks puffed out. Sifting through flocks led us to another cool tanager, which from the name alone gives you the idea, the Glistening-green Tanager literally glows emerald green. The final of the many specialties we were to see that day was the most dapper of them all. Having the Tandayapa Bird Lodge volunteer James Harold Wickham along with us proved a boon for us as he is something of a "solitaire magnet" (this reputation comes from the last time we birded together and enjoyed Rufous-brown Solitaire and Black Solitaire within feet of each other in quick succession, AND from the fact that a few days later he found the first Black Solitaire at Tandayapa Bird Lodge for years!); and true to form up popped a Black Solitaire in front of him and he drew us all to this spiffy bird.

It was quite the day, splendid weather, lots of rare and local species, and a bunch of others in a supporting cast that included Broad-billed Motmot, Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Velvet-purple Coronet & more! However, perhaps the day will be best remembered for one of the late arrivals on the day: a group of delectable Rose-faced Parrots feasting on bananas-not good for the local farmer I am sure, but fantastic for us, we lapped them up!

22 December 2012

Back to the "patch"...ECUADOR (12 Dec)

In Ecuador, and indeed over the past 7 years, Tandayapa Bird Lodge has felt like my home patch, as I have been there more than anywhere else. I am certainly not complaining about that! I continued my time with the folks from the oldest bird club in South Africa, the Wits Bird Club, with a day in the Tandayapa Valley of northwest Ecuador, famously home to many Choco endemics, and a slew of tanagers and hummingbirds besides. We started our day right around the lodge. As dawn lit up the lodge, a familiar scene unfolded, with the regular "parade" of species dropping in to investigate what moths were left on the sides of the building after the night.

The first to come in was the noisy and vocal Golden-crowned Flycatcher which is never slow to let you know its around, with its far from musical tones! While a cable supported a pair of these flycatchers, the rope railing below shuddered as a male Masked Trogon landed there, and looked around slowly for anything to pounce on. As usual it was so engrossed in picking up any insects it could find (and it found more than a few), that it barely noticed the band of keen photographers approaching within inches of it. Soon after the brown-backed female (the male has a glossy, iridescent green back) also came in, although sat a little higher up and was relatively inconspicuous compared to the show put on by the male. The flowers jiggled as a Three-striped Warbler worked them, and the usual Slate-throated Whitestart came in to clean out the guttering of any moths.

More furtive was a Streak-capped Treehunter that very nearly slipped by unnoticed  A couple of woodpeckers also passed by with first a Golden-Olive Woodpecker, and then a Smoky-brown Woodpecker. Once the post-dawn action had subsided, we moved up the valley, where some 7 kilometers above the lodge some other, higher elevation species can be found. Things were disturbingly slow up there for a while, although after some perseverance, and a second late morning visit to the same site we finally found our main quarry, the rare and local Tanager Finch.

Next up was to be a visit to the endemic-rich foothills, and the reserve of Mashpi...

21 December 2012

Tanager Time...ECUADOR (10 Dec)

 With the weather gloomy and rainy down at Guango (at around 2600m elevation), we shuddered to think what the highest point of the tour, at 4300m above Papallacta Pass might hold for us. Knowing though that just that short distance away, can however feel a world away in terms of weather. So we kept our optimism high and headed for the high pass, only to be greeted by an impenetrable blanket of all engulfing fog; not the weather desired when you are searching for a cryptic, well-camouflaged, "ptarmiganesque" shorebird of the high Andes, the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, which blends supremely well with its surrounding when in good light conditions!  The weather was simply too bad to even attempt to find this, and so we made rapid change of plan, and decided to continue chasing tanagers instead. For this we drove up a dirt road that winds up the mountain behind the Termas de Papallacta in the town of the same name. This road has become famous as the most accessible place for the rare Masked Mountain-Tanagers, which at a substantial eight and a half inches is one of the largest of all the Ecuadorian tanagers. Trouble it, it is rare, and can be tough to find, as it lays low within its threatened elfin forest habitat, which lies on the treeline between the temperate forest zone and the highland paramo grasslands above. Luck may have been firmly against us in terms of the weather, although thankfully there was a notable break in the most brutal elements of this weather along this road, and on top of that moments after stepping out of the car, instead of being greeted by the usual stony silence of the elfin forest, there were chirps and cheeps all around; there was a flock around, and a substantial one. Rufous Wrens first broke cover, followed by a swathe of Black-backed Bush-Tanagers, a scarcity in its own right that is often easily missed. My hopes were high that with these could be the beefy tanager we most wanted. Then seconds after this thought drifted through my mind, there it was, a large yellow tanager sporting a jet black mask homed in to view and we were soon all on to it, as the Masked Mountain-Tanager got swept along with the tide of birds coursing through the low shrubbery. However, it was not alone, other tanagers were in the midst of this heady flock that entertained us for well over an hour. A short time later another large, thick-set Andean tanager made an appearance, this time a Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager before a party of delectable Golden-crowned Tanagers popped up time and again and stole our attentions over and over. After we feasted on these spectacular Andean birds we lunched by the roadside, being interrupted for yet another beefy tanager in the form, this time, of a Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, took in the odd hummer here and there with Viridian Metaltails and Shining Sunbeams regularly in evidence, and claimed another five star tanager in the form of another scarcity, a Black-headed Hemispingus.

After another unfortunate attempt for the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe in high winds and low cloud, which culminated in me finding the bird, only revealing it to be gone when I returned with the group (aahh!!!), we finished the day with one more fantastic tanager, this time the nuthatch-impressionist, the Giant Conebill, creeping its way along a flaking polylepis branch. The weather had pushed us to the limits of tolerance, but with the wave of tanager-after-tanager our stresses and tensions were soon eased!

More from the Equator soon...

19 December 2012

Feeling Blue...ECUADOR (10 Dec)

After closing the evening the day before with an immaculate pair of Torrent Ducks, and the proverbial torrent of hummingbirds at the Guango Lodge feeders (including regular extreme close-ups of the scarce Glowing Puffleg), we were not sure what could top this. Although, a short time after dawn, and having ate a hearty, pre-dawn, breakfast, some raucous noises right around the lodge delayed our morning walk: the resident flock of Turquoise Jays were demanding our attention, and they got it. They also had half a dozen or so, even more noisy Mountain Caciques in tow with them. After admiring these for a while, as they literally hopped around ON the lodge, we set off in pursuit of a flock. We were not to be disappointed  in what turned out to be a bumper day for tanagers in particular; something no one ever complains about! Along the trail we found our first Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, sporting the tear that lends the bird its name, and also found a beefy Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, along with Andean Guan, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Pearled Treerunner, Spectacled Redstart, Pale-naped Brush-Finch and others. Back at the feeders, before we had to bid farewell to this classic Andean lodge, we scoffed ourselves on hummingbirds, admiring the common Chestnut-breasted Coronets, dapper Collared Incas, tiny White-bellied Woodstars, and dazzling Long-tailed Sylphs in particular, before we decided we simply had to depart with some other higher Andean targets in mind, even if the weather did look ominously similar to the day's before atrocious climate. 

We perked up our collars, boarded the bus, and held our breath, as we ascended higher into the Andes for the highest point of the trip, and some of the most highly-desired birds of the trip...

18 December 2012

Flight of the Condor...ECUADOR (9 Dec)

My tour with the Wits Bird Club of South Africa continued with a two-day spell in the high Andes of Ecuador. We had visited the dry, semi-arid Inter-Andean Valley the day before, and now we would emerge out of this and visit the wet grass-covered upper slopes of the east slope. We began our two day sojourn at Antisana, a national park named after the mighty 5,700m+ high volcano that-on clear days-dominates the skyline. We were here to get our first dose of both the spectacular high Andean scenery, and the distinct avifauna of this elevation. The weather on this day was truly extraordinary, however, making it very difficult to find many of these. It was unusually windy up there, coupled with regular bouts of rain, made it one of the more challenging days I had ever had up there. The volcano was hidden from sight behind a vast blanket of dense cloud, and so too were the hoped-for condors, which were neither visible on their nesting cliffs during an initial morning search, or in the gloomy skies above. You would think that the condors would be huddled on the cliffs, and not braving the chilled skies on this day, but these are truly hardy birds. 

Braving the conditions we did find a Paramo Pipit creeping through the grass, surrounded by some of the more common paramo species such as Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Stout-billed and Chestnut-winged Cinclodes. A scenic valley provided us with two new hummers: female Ecuadorian Hillstars regular fluttering around some of the Chuquiragua flowers there, while the ever territorial Shining Sunbeam stood guard by its chosen flowers. Once we reached the plateau an odd sight greeted us. Usually a "carpet" of caracaras liberally scattered across the plateau greets you as you arrive on the "flatlands". However, the extreme weather we were experiencing, with strong, and cold winds sending the rain horizontal at times, showed its affects on the local Carunculated Caracaras, which were grouped in clusters of 8-10 birds which were sheltering behind the few taller tussocks of grass, and very few were leaving their sanctuary to feed at that time. Many of them were stood alongside another high Andean species, though this time a shorebird, Andean Lapwing, while large groups of Andean Gulls were also in evidence up there. We soon also found several groups of Black-faced Ibis, an endangered Ecuadorian bird, numbering up to 17 birds. This latter sighting was very welcome, as just a few weeks back a visit there had revealed no birds present.

However, our main target up there, which was also the largest, Andean Condor, remained elusive and unseen during the high winds and rain that accompanied our birding. It was so cold there that when we first found the groups of ibis, all but two of the group remained in the bus, refusing to budge from this warm sanctuary from the sudden bitter conditions just a few steps outside the vehicle. As we were fixing to leave, miraculously, the clouds parted, and for just a short time small patches of blue sky appeared overhead. With this sudden change in the weather, we pulled over and scanned the skies above, in our last desperate hopes of finding our main quarry. Then, suddenly, there it was, a splendid adult Andean Condor, complete with striking "Elizabethan" white neck ruff. Indeed, as we upped to leave, one final scan of the "Condor Cliffs" brought us magical views of another adult, this time dropping dramatically on the the cliffs to bring prey in for a juvenile resting there. Meanwhile, an adult Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle glided overhead, keeping a watchful eye on its own young bird resting on the cliffs below. It had been a day for the hardiest birders, but one that was very rewarding in the end, culminating in this dramatic showing from Ecuador's national bird, the majestic Andean Condor.

Our next stop was to be the hummingbird-packed grounds of Guango Lodge...

16 December 2012

Jerusalem...ECUADOR (8 Dec)

Not the one in Israel, but the considerably less famous reserve with the same name in Ecuador's Andes. This is an underbirded, and perhaps under appreciated, site within the dry Inter-Andean Valley, north of Ecuador's capital Quito. Ecuador's geography is interesting, and significant, when considering its birdlife: a double chain of the Andes runs north-south through the country, forming the spine of Ecuador. These parallel chains are bisected by a valley, the so-called Inter-Andean Valley between them. The climates of the outward facing slopes of the Andes (west and east slope) are markedly wet, and naturally covered in dense rainforest eventually giving way to the mighty Amazon as you reach the eastern lowlands, (or the Choco lowlands in the lowlands of the northwest). The valley that bisects these wet slopes, however, is semi-arid in nature, and dominated by scrubby, cactus-infested, habitat of a very different nature to the west and east-facing slopes of the Andes, which therefore forms a significant barrier to bird movements between these slopes, and subsequently a number of bird species are confined to either these west or east-facing, forested slopes.

So our day to kick off our tour was to focus on the dry, cactus-inhabited valley hemmed in between the great Andean chains on either side. It did not take long before we started seeing some of the key species in the area, when a gas station provided an unlikely birding venue for picking up some of our targets, such as smart-dressed Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, considerably less smart Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches and Grassland Yellow Finches, and an immaculate adult male Purple-collared Woodstar preening in the first rays of sunlight. Then we went into Jerusalem itself, a popular park with "Quitenos" (i.e. people from Quito), looking to have a barbecue in the warm, dry climate of the area. Being a Saturday we hit it badly in terms of non-birding tourist numbers, although the birding here is so easy it did not affect our ability to find the area's most wanted birds, including Scrub Tanager (a local bird in Ecuador, only also occurring into Colombia), which gave itself up easily right at the park entrance. Equally popular among the group from South Africa's Wits Bird Club (which I was guiding), were the neon red male Vermilion Flycatchers that adorned the park at regular intervals, along with our first cracking woodpecker of the tour, and what an opener in that regard, with the striking Crimson-mantled Woodpecker proving a very popular bird indeed.

We closed the afternoon at one of Ecuador's volcanic lakes, Laguna San Pablo, sitting at the base of the intimidating, though dormant, Volcan Imbabura. The lake was dotted with ducks, such as Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and (Andean) Ruddy Duck. The most prominent resident though were the many Andean Coots sprinkled along the edges. However, we were here to try and find a songbird and a waterbird that lurks in the reeds. We got bief views of the first-Subtropical Doradito-in challenging, windy, conditions for seeing passerines, and were rewarded for being hassled by a local pack of dogs when they successfully flushed the second: Ecuadorian Rail, which gave us a long flyby as a result. It is not often I welcome the presence of dogs, although I could have kissed that one right there and then! However, the real five-star sighting of the afternoon was a young COMMON TERN doing loops around the lake, which may represent the first highland record of this species in Ecuador.

Our next trip out was to be up into the high Andean paramos (moorlands above the treeline) in Antisana and Papallacta...

10 December 2012

Banded Ground-Cuckoo...ECUADOR (2 Dec)

Back in September the world of Neotropical Birding was rocked with the news that a pair of Banded Ground-Cuckoos had been seen daily at a site in northwest Ecuador. This bird is famously shy, in keeping with all the other neomorphus ground-cuckoos, and genuinely rare, with scant records in most years. World birders trawled the web for updates, and some crazy folks (who I even have to admit may be friends of mine!), flew in from countries afar to come and check off this mega-lifebird, for fear another chance may not come along like this in their lifetime, and who can blame them for this fear. This situation had NEVER happened before, a twitchable Banded Ground-Cuckoo. World birders and local bird guides (like me) alike were atwitter with this news, and could not resist making the pilgrimage. I had done this in September, and had been itching to get back there, as since that time, the local Un Poco del Choco reserve manager, Nicole, had managed to habituate the juvenile bird at least to come in daily and pick insects out oh her hand! The latest news also indicated one of the accompanying adults had recently shed it's usual retiring nature, and was also coming in to feed at close quarters; I simply had to check it out again, with the lure of an adult too in the mix. I headed down there with Tandayapa Bird Lodge manager, and good friend, Pablo Cervantes, another keen for photographer like me, who could not resist another fix of the cuckoo...We arrived, a little late, to see a frantic Wilo waiting for us, who quickly led us down the trail to where we found his beaming wife, almost rubbing shoulders with the juvenile Banded Ground-Cuckoo. The light was poor in the shady forest, though the bird was close so I still managed some OK shots, even without the use of flash. Meanwhile Pablo was frustrated that the bird was simply too close for his 400mm lens! Who would have thought that one day we would complain that we cannot get picture perfect shots of a Banded Ground-Cuckoo, when in years past (which were actually quite recent), we would only be too happy to merely see one, let alone photo them.

It was great to see it again, and hope this amazing "birding event" continues long into the future, so that many others can enjoy this landmark moment as much as I have done.

More to come from Ecuador very soon...

09 December 2012

Dream Bird...ECUADOR (2 Dec)

In the middle of, well start, of another tour with a group from South Africa in the Andes of Ecuador, so posting time is scarce, though I wil be doing a full update on this beauty soon...

08 December 2012

Bearly time for Frogging!...ECUADOR (25-26 Nov)

By the time the rain stopped at Maquipucuna, and the Rufous Motmot had long since gone to roost, the frogs reacted in style, with a solid and resounding chorus ringing through the night, of at least three species right around where we stayed. I only managed to find one, which I am having a little difficulty in identifying, but it posed with aplomb for photos.


Next morning dawned bright, and Rebecca and I headed out for some early morning birding before we hot the "bear trail" again. We started with a few skulkers with winning views of South America's version of Asia's Pygmy Wren-Babbler, the Southern Nightingale-Wren, followed shortly after by views of an immaculate Orange-billed Sparrow. Then our attentions were once again back on to all things furry, and it did not take long to find our first of the day. We bumped in to a volunteer virtually sprinting back down the trail having caught up with an early morning bear, and was still clearly dealing with the high from this. Moments later we were enjoying what was presumably the same, somewhat bold, bear, brazenly feeding in the open, then launching a brazen attack on us as we watched which comprised of bear piss and poop. I was so busy enjoying the bear I very nearly got caught in the substantial crossfire. I was simply absorbed in the moment. Then, suddenly, it shinned down the tree, within mere feet of a beaming Rebecca, and then scrambled rather clumsily up a bank and away. Finally, our last bear sighting was the longest one yet. While lacking the extreme closeness of the former, and certainly lacking the drama of the "bear shower", it was a unique sighting. It continued to feed at length while we watched on, as the bear foraged at some 15-20m up, sniffing for its favoured fruits, then, when clapping eyes on it, and realising it was placed precariously at the prominence of a slender branch which would clearly not carry it substantial weight, displayed its raw power by gnawing on the base of the branch until it began to show the strain from its bite and then grabbed the falling limb with its teeth, just as it appeared to be falling from its reach. Then it turned it around gingerly, ensuring the fruits were now placed clos to its mouth, and cleaned the branch of its bounty within a matter of minutes. afterwhich it was happy to let the branch come crashing to earth, once it was done with it.

All too soon we had to turn about face and return to Quito, taking a scarlet Andean Cock-of-the-rock along the return journey.

Next up was another visit to the "kingdom of the bears", and an irresistible chance to take in the Banded Ground-Cuckoo just one more time...

07 December 2012

The Bear Necessities of Life...ECUADOR (24 Nov)

After finishing up with the Cape Bird Club in Ecuador, I was exhausted but happy; I had got the chance to go birding and frogging with a really decent and fun group of people. Exhausted as on one of our last night a few of us could not resist rummaging in the jungle to search for frogs (see post before). This led to one of the longest days in the field I have done: from 04:30am until just after 11pm! I was looking forward to a weekend off, although fate often gets in the way of this...and not always for the bad. It turns out Rebecca Hinkle, a very good birding friend from Ohio (she works at the splendid Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge  ) was going to have a few free days, post a Galapagos tour (with Tropical Birding), and was basically up for anything. Just before I finished the Cape Bird Club tour of the Ecuadorian Andes and Amazon a rather juicy e-mail landed, conspicuously in my inbox. I picked this up on Blackberry while traveling between sites, and had to read it several times, rub my eyes, and comprehend the message clearly. News was coming through that it was a bumper time for the rare and extremely difficult Spectacled Bear at Maquipucuna reserve in northwest Ecuador.  I had longed to se one of these Andean bears for quite some time. They had been spotted before by volunteers on the Tandayapa Bird Lodge property (where I have spent quite some time over the last 7 years), and another guide had taunted us with quality video of one just up the valley from the lodge. However, as ever, these involved fleeting sightings which were never to be repeated.

So after a night's stop-over in Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Rebecca and I were on our way in darkness to a reserve in Ecuador which for some reason or another I had not yet made it too. Heading to a new site with the tantalising prospect of bears was exciting to say the least. Although I hardly dared to believe it was possible. Turning up at the site, where the visit had been arranged through another Rebecca, we were greeted by another Sam, this time a volunteer at the reserve, who nonchalantly declared we WOULD see the bears, as they were being seen daily and were "easy". Could I yet dare to believe? In between these contemplations Rebecca spotted a regal Broad-billed Motmot sitting out in the open, though I fluffed my lines, and completely missed an open shot (Rebecca did not however).


So Rebecca and I headed out with one of the local guides, Carlos, who came armed with head full of facts about the bears and clearly had some intimate knowledge of them from his 20+ years of service at the reserve. Time flew by, and before we knew it we were following Carlos's gesture up to a large, unkempt bunch of sticks, which had been woven into a "bed" by a large furry beast, which peered out from within it...my first, splendid, Spectacled Bear! It looked at us with curiosity, though never really seemed perturbed by our presence, my hyper-ventilating, and our unhushed excitement. Amazingly, we ventured on and within no time at all were picking up the clumsy sounds of another bear, ripping into one of the fruiting trees that had caused them to venture down from higher elevations. All too soon we were eyeball to eyeball with another bear. Although this time no large beds of sticks could hide this one, which was often fully in the open, in a very open canopy, allowing for spectacular looks. After a little while of feeding, then fretting about its next move, the bear simply decided to slip down the trunk beside us, and clumsily ramble off into the forest, when it was gone once more.

Finally, as Rebecca and I headed back to the lodge for lunch, with the birding being rather dull by comparison we stumbled into a third bear, frozen and staring at us from another canopy, this one with clear spectacles, unlike the other two. Indeed. the facial patterns of these bears are absorbing and uniquely individual, allowing identification of individuals relatively easily. Carlos was very familier with the very bears we saw, as he had come across over 19 different bears in his many years on site. The first one was clearly different from the other two, with clear buff-colored eyebrows ("Mr. Brows"-my own personal name for it), the second one I nicknamed "Mr. Blond" (as homage to Reservoir Dogs if nothing else, as that sounded cool in the film), and for the blond hourglass marking on the face, and third I called "Specs" as it was the only one with spectacles of all three spectacled bears seen on this day.

It was a remarkable day; I had barley believed we would see them at all, let alone three superb views of different individuals, PLUS photos of all. I never imagined this. We had planned to go another bear hunt in the afternoon though heavy rains put paid to this, so we stuck to the lodge, where we were even joined by a Rufous Motmot, who also chose to shelter under the same eaves. Good company all round! 

More bears and birds to come, very soon...

05 December 2012

Lost in Frogging...ECUADOR (18 - 20 Nov)

On a couple of nights some enthusiastic people from the Cape Bird Club group (Andrew, Heather and Otto in particular, though not exclusively), could not resist a super long day - some of were in the field a titanic 20 HOURS on one day, by not only birding during all possible hours of daylight, but also venturing out after dark for creepy crawlies, and night creatures. Most notably, the frogs were a huge success, and fuelled a growing fire for this in me, which I fear, like birding, is now irreversible. I am hooked. Here are some of the things we found, frog-wise in two super-enjoyable nights creeping around the fringes of the Amazon jungle....

Common Polkadot Treefrog

Rocket Treefrog

Unknown Frog (trying to leap into my room no less)

Gladiator Treefrog

 Sharp-nosed Toad

More traditional feathery and furry notes to come soon, as I ventured, post-Amazon, into the Andes for a very special mammal indeed...

03 December 2012

Into the Amazon....ECUADOR (18 Nov)

Jose Illanes and I continued our extremely enjoyable tour with the group from the Cape Bird Club of South Africa. Having spent some time in the Andes, we shifted down into the eastern lowlands, and into the vast Amazon Basin. After a few days in the high Andes the considerable jump in temperature and humidity were palpable. Our first full day in the steamy Amazon jungle saw us undertake one of the classic activities in the region: a visit to the Yasuni National Park clay licks, where parrots gather daily to feast on the clay and the rich minerals it brings to their diets. For our Amazon stay we were based at the incredible, and now world-famous, Sacha Lodge, which meant we would be just a boat ride away from a couple of accesible parrot licks. The first of this we sidled up to in our motorised canoe, and watched as FOUR species of parrots dropped into to an insignificant-looking bank of clay along the mighty Napo River itself, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River. Mealy Amazons and Blue-headed Parrots were the most numerous and conspicuous, while the odd Yellow-crowned Amazon was found in their midst too, along with some Dusky-headed Parakeets. As we drifted alongside them the activity was frantic, and the noise only just bearable, as parrots are surely one of the noisiest groups of birds, and at their noisiest around mineral-rich banks of clay. 

Once we had soaked up this scene we went to witness another, although this time, the lick was on the ground, in a shallow cave, and was accessible by way of a short walk through the jungle. This short walk was worth mentioning, as we hit some activity where a number of antbirds seemed to be present, most notably the striking Black-spotted Bare-eye, found within the 'scope by Heather when trying to see another, much dowdier species of antbird in the very same 'scope view! I had spent long hours in both Ecuador and Peru chasing this ant-beauty, but only now got the crisp looks I had craved so long for; fantastic

On reaching the large, purpose-built, blind/hide we joined the ranks of people who'd come to watch the main event: parrots dropping down below eye-level, and at close range, offering photo opportunities aplenty, and rare views of these often difficult to see canopy birds. Chief among them were the hordes of Cobalt-winged Parakeets, one of the most numerous parrots in this part of the Amazon, though they were joined by two other, more striking, and scarcer species, the Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, which is incredibly difficult to see away from this "stage", and the extremely handsome Orange-cheeked Parrot, one of which even came and landed in front of the blind as if to dare us to take photos, which of course we did! The action was magnetic, although once an unidentified raptor swooped in at high speed, every single, screaming and squawking, parrot took to the air immediately and scrambled for an exit in their panic, which meant the vast majority of these hundreds, if not thousands, of birds came screaming through the air and screaming through the blind we were sat in, causing more than a few of us to flinch in the process. Just minutes later the forest fell silent, as every single parrot had abandoned the lick, and the usual raucous chorus that accompanies their presence had left with them.

More frogs, birds, and animals to come from the Amazon...

28 November 2012

Antennas & Seedsnipes...ECUADOR (16 Nov)

...No not the name of a new rock band, but appropriate for my second day in the high Andes with the Cape Bird Club. Our first day was within paramo, like this day was (at least partly), though this time our focus was around Papallacta, where the paramo is notably wetter, offering up a slightly different set of birds from those experienced the day before at Antisana. However, before we hit the paramo again, we visited an area of elfin forest, not far from our hotel. Amazingly, after such enjoyable dip by the group into the naturally fed hot springs outside our room, most opted for birding over this again. The temptress though in this was the chance to find the rare Masked Mountain-Tanager. We opened shortly after dawn with a pair of Culpeo or Andean Fox crossing an open pasture at the edge of the cloudforest. All too soon they realized they were being watched and vanished into the forest. When we reached the elfin forest, and the zone at which we hoped to find the tanager, we glanced back down the road and were hit with spectacular views of the Antisana Volcano, which had been all but hidden from us the day before by a thick blanket of cloud. This time though it looked regal and was unhindered, save for a wash of pink provided by the magical first light of an Andean dawn. Once the dawn gave way to normal daylight, the search was on for the Masked Mountain-Tanager which Jose Illanes, my experienced Ecuadorian co-guide for the trip duly spotted and ensured we all soaked up at length. 

Next stop was the antennas above Papallacta Pass, the only reliable spot in Ecuador for a special Andean shorebird, the "ptarmiganesque" Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. Weather was still on our side, even up at the lofty elevation of nearly 4400m, and we were greeted with a wonderful panoramic of the surrounding Andean hills, lakes and paramo, as a backdrop to our search. 

Brief views of four fleeting  and flying, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes failed to satisfy before, again, Jose hit the headlines, as he almost stepped on another pair of seedsnipes. After a breathless hike to Jose's high position we were soon to all enjoy long, long looks at these remarkably tame Andean birds. 

We finished off a memorable day in the Andes with views of no less that three separate Giant Conebills working their way through the maze of polylepis trees which grow at the substantial heights around Papallacta Pass. 

We finished up back in Quito, and readied ourselves for a vastly different experience which loomed next: The Amazon Jungle...