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...

High Andean Surprise...ECUADOR (15 Nov)


The Cape Bird Club tour continued, though changed tack; we had been entirely on the west slope of the Andes until this point, although (after our return to Quito for the previous night), we made our way over the Andes onto the east slope, and made our way up higher into the paramo (like moorland grassland) above the treeline (3900m). This would offer us a whole swathe of new and exciting species, not least Ecuador's majestic national bird, the Andean Condor. However, before we glanced skywards for the huge shapes of condors on the winf we birded some high Andean scrub, below the paramo itself, hoping to find the World's largest hummer, Giant Hummingbird. Unfortunately, few flowers appeared to be in bloom, and subsequently the hummer went unseen, although my "condor-eyed" co-guide, Ecuadorian Jose Illanes, made a shock discovery when he found a Great Horned Owl sitting out in the open at its day roost. Nice compensation indeed, and the first time either Jose or myself had seen this species at Antisana. 

Then, shortly after, some white-washed cliffs led us to several perched Andean Condors, which had presumably recently bred in the area, as a flock of five took to the skies, including three juveniles lacking the "Elizabethan" neck ruff of the adults gliding, effortlessly, closeby; what a start to our two days in the high Andes. On the way up to the paramo we picked up Ecuadorian Hillstar, though sadly only a dowdy female, and not the purple-headed male people (and Heather in particular!), so desired, and also enjoyed some wonderful views of Sedge (Grass) Wren that came in so well, that we could literally glance into its throat as it blasted its song back at us from point blank range! Up on the plateau we reached true paramo grasslands being attended to by a large flock of Carunculated Caracaras and Andean Gulls, the latter always looking out of place up in the mountain, rather than the coasts where most other gulls intuitively exist. Sadly, we could not find one of the other flagship birds of Antisana, Black-faced Ibis, a small population of which exists in the area, but we did find plenty of waterfowl on the Laguna Mica, where Silvery Grebes, Andean Coots, Andean Teal, Andean (Ruddy) Ducks, and Yellow-billed Pintails all competed for our attentions. After a picnic lunch, where Plumbeous Sierra-Finches gathered around us in the hope of some snacks, we turned around and headed to our final stop in the high Andes, Papallacta, where a fancy mountain resort awaited us, complete with personal pools outside our rooms, fed by natural Andean hot springs, allowing us all to enjoy a post-dusk soak to mend our weary bones after a fantastic day in the High Andes.

Reports from our second day, this time in the wetter paramo of Papallacta, to come...

24 November 2012

West Slope Bears Fruit...ECUADOR (14 Nov)

For our final day on the WEST slope of the Andes, myself, and co-guide Jose Illanes, and the Cape Bird Club visited a small reserve near Mindo, Paz de las Aves, most famed for a number of tame antpittas that have been habituated there and are seen almost daily, with the help of the local landowners, and farmers-turned-bird-guides, Rodrigo and Angel Paz. An ungodly hour saw us arriving at the reserve just as the sun should have been breaking the horizon. I say should as all we got on arrival was a good dose of light rain and "mizzle", threatening to derail our birding completely. But, typically for the Andes, by the middle of the morning the rain was just a distant memory and we felt foolish being loaded down with heavy, sweat-inducing rain gear! However, back to dawn, when we made our way down to the now familiar cock-of-the-rock blind/hide, where at least one of these scarlet beauties came in to visit, give a loud pig-squeal like call, and then was gone. However, Jose Illanes, the other person guiding with me soon alerted us to one of the reserve's star birds: he had bumped into a covey of extraordinarily tame Dark-backed Wood-Quail, which included five birds, three of which were juveniles. Next stop was the reserve's most famous resident of all, and the species which put this tiny, unknown reserve onto the birding map. On this day it took a little longer than usual, although "Panchito" the local Giant Antpitta duly obliged by hopping up on to its favoured rotting tree stump and gobbling down the daily worms laid out for it, while the photographers among us were whipped into a frenzy by this extraordinary,  though now almost expected, scene. A brief male Crested Quetzal distracted while we waited for the next "performance"...

Angel and his brother Rodrigo were busy trying to find their local Moustached and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, and finally Angel found two of them at the same spot! The Ochre-breasted Antpitta, amusingly nicknamed "Shakira" by Angel due to its habit of wiggling it hips somewhat in the manner of the Colombian popstar of the same name, was the most obliging, lingering on an open branch for a long time, while the Moustached Antpitta was typically more furtive, remaining very much in the background and reluctant to show itself to all. Having climbed up the steep hill from the cock-of-the-rock lek/display area we were relieved of the break, with the altitude taking its toll on some. However, while Angel had shown us some of "his" birds upslope, his brother had been working busily downslope to try and lure in one of the other, more difficult, species. Thus, before long, and before we had barely caught our breath from both the climb and incredulity of the avian events unfolding, we were being summoned back down again. Unsurprisingly, some of the group point blank refused to descend again and face another uphill struggle. However, a handful of hearty folks joined me as we looked on while two Rufous-breasted Antthrushes wandered in and out of sight in the darker recesses of the forest. 

With all this action, the morning was quickly slipping away, and Angel beckoned us once more to make our way through a cow pasture to the edge of the cloudforest, where he was hoping "Thomas" may just show up. Thomas is the latest of the reserve's avian celebrities, an Ocellated Tapaculo, which while being easy to hear, had been proving difficult to see of late, and so we waited nervously while Angel tried to whistle it in. The birds attention was soon peaked and began loudly crying back. However, for an age it seemed it remained well downslope, and seemingly uninterested in making the climb to greet us. However, slowly but surely the cries of the tapaculo came closer, and closer, and then suddenly the black, white, and orange, polka-dotted form of the Ocellated Tapaculo apeared right out in the open, looking every bit as spectacular as any field guide illustration. A very happy group were then happy to take a break and have one of the reserve's famous hearty brunches made of local traditional food: Bolones (a ball of plantain stuffed with chicken), and cheese empanadas. Although, the birding did not stop for brunch, as Black-capped and Golden-naped Tanagers appeared by the makesift restaurant, before the morning's prize bird, a startlingly bright male Orange-breasted Fruiteater graced a fruiting tree, visible while coffee (or empanada) were in hand; a great end to our time in the northwest Andes of Ecuador.

My Cape Bird Club tour continued though with two days up in the high Andes just over on the east slope, where both staggering scenery and fantastic birds, not to mention a natural hot springs, awaited us...

23 November 2012

Trogons, Tanagers, & Puffbirds...ECUADOR (10-13 Nov)

My tour with the strange bunch of people from the Cape Bird Club (I mean this in a very good way!), continued with some ventures to lower altitudes, as day trips from Tandayapa Bird Lodge.  We visited Milpe first, in the Andean foothills, where new birds came thick and fast with our drop in altitude, including their star bird, the displaying Club-winged Manakin, which won the BIRD OF THE DAY vote at the evening dinner, although other highlights there included a handsome and beautiful songster, the Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, displaying White-bearded Manakins which sound remarkably like firecrackers, and a surprise group of Crested Guans hiding out in the early morning mist (a rare bird at this reserve).

On another day we dropped down further still, traveling extremely early in the morning to get to the lowland Rio Silanche reserve, which like Milpe is run by the Ecuadorian NGO, the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation. Like Milpe this yielded a day list of over one hundred species, with an overwhelming amount of new birds for the group (which they welcomed with open arms). Among the stars of the day were a number of flock following birds, including the endemic Orange-fronted Barbet, Scarlet-browed Tanager, and the striking Black-striped Woodcreeper (the best of its kind on the west slope of the Andes in Ecuador in my opinion).Other standouts included a dashing scarlet-headed male Guayaquil Woodpecker (named after Ecuador's most populous city), a hissing pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds, a bright-eyed Choco Trogon, and Vernon found an outrageous Spectacled Owl which glared at us with ferocious intensity from its day roost. Once we had seen this spectacular owl so well in full daylight, it was pretty clear this bird would win the BIRD OF THE DAY vote, though sadly it lifted off just before my lens captured this magic moment---gutted!

More to come from this adventure with the Cape Bird Club in the Andes of Ecuador, very soon...

22 November 2012

Tandayapa Valley...ECUADOR (9 & 12 Nov)

My tour with the folks from the Cape Bird Club in South Africa continued, which I co-guided with fellow Tropical Birder Jose Illanes. The first part of the tour was based out of Tandayapa Bird Lodge, central to many key locations in the endemic rich Choco region of northwest Ecuador. We birded both the Upper Tandayapa Valley, where the flagship bird, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, was seen with ease, and the Lower Tandayapa Valley with its subtly different avifauna. Although, one of the other stars of the the upper zone of the valley, the endangered Tanager Finch, was much trickier than the aforementioned toucan, needing three attempts to track it down. Third time lucky though, when a wonderful pair of these oddballs was seen very well indeed during one late afternoon in the cloudforest. 

Other highlights included a polka-dotted Ocellated Tapaculo, which surprised us all by jumping up into full view when least expected, and we also found a Toucan Barbet or two, and a treetop pair of Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, to add to the long list of Choco specialties we amassed on the tour. Some orchids were also in glorious bloom in the cloudforests up there, which made for good photo subjects and were very popular among the South Africans who boast quite a flora of their own in the Fynbos region of Southern Africa they originated from.

At Tandayapa Bird Lodge itself there were the usual long list of hummers buzzing around their constantly active feeders, with at least 14 species visiting in our time there, including the ever-popular Violet-tailed Sylph and Booted Racket-tail. The usual pair of tame Masked Trogons were also noted around the lodge (sometimes visible from the restaurant), and the regular female Andean Cock-of-the-rock had returned to nest again, ON the lodge! We also enjoyed extreme close-ups of Immaculate Antbirds picking off moths in front of the forest blind/hide, along with a White-throated Quail-Dove which paced around the festering compost heap there.

All in all a good few days at this long-established birding area....next up was a trip downslope to the foothills and lowlands of the Choco...

17 November 2012

Tale of Two Antpittas...ECUADOR (8 Nov)

A group from the Cape Bird Club (South Africa) arrived frazzled after a 27 hour journey, but keen, and we were soon on our way to the "standard" stop-off point on the way to Tandayapa Bird Lodge, the Jocotoco Foundation reserve of Yanacocha just outside Ecuador's capital, Quito. Not long after our arrival, and the group having burst out of the bus with excitement, we were eyeballing Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, and a pair of oh so friendly Tawny Antpittas bouncing around below the picnic tables. Indeed, it was a good day for antpittas, with a pair of equally friendly Rufous Antpittas which greeted us at the opposite end of the "Inca Trail". Other highlights at Yanacocha were a confiding, and atypically unshy Andean Guan, the usual dramatic Sword-billed Hummingbirds stealing the headlines at the feeders (which also supported a fine Golden-breasted Puffleg), and a Bar-bellied Woodpecker. However, it was the two male Torrent Ducks barreling their way down the Alambi River that won the hearts of the group, which resoundingly voted this as their "bird of the day".

More blogging to come from this exciting Ecuador trip, when I return from the final leg of the trip...at Sacha Lodge in the steamy jungles of the Amazon...

07 November 2012

Into the Andes I go...ECUADOR

I begin a tour tomorrow, heading to some favorite old haunts in the Andes of Ecuador. First stop tomorrow is the "Sword-billed Hummingbird" capital of Ecuador: Yanacocha, and then we'll weave our way to Tandayapa Bird Lodge (maybe via a cock-of-the-rock I hope).

Blog posts to come during rare moments of internet between the hordes of tanagers and hummingbirds!

04 November 2012

Farewell La Selva...ECUADOR (29 Oct)

With a 06:00am departure there was little time for any birding at La Selva, but I still got to admire another magnificent Amazon sunrise, this time with a light mist rising off the Garzacocha Lake. The local group of Sand-colored Nighthawks were still restless and not yet settled for the day-they had chosen to roost together in an open tree just in front of the lodge. I counted at least 39 Sand-colored Nighthawks huddled together in the tree (with some 20 or so visible in the photo above). There was just enough time to load up the canoes, and take in the sight of three Hoatzins venturing down to the glassy water to take their first drink for the day, and have our attention grabbed by a noisy pair of Black-capped Donacobius making their first foraging forays of the day, before we drifted away from La Selva, crossed over the Andes by air, and returned back to Ecuador's lofty capital, Quito.

03 November 2012

La Selva...ECUADOR (28 Oct)

The plan for this day was to try and pick up La Selva's star resident, the rare and local Cocha Antshrike. However, this did not happen; the one territory we tried was silent, and the best area for them (which apparently holds two territories) was currently out of bounds due to a community dispute. However, there was plenty of interest during a hot and sweaty morning in the Amazon. Wire-tailed Manakins seemed to be calling everywhere, and we managed to find several stunning males, with their vermilion red caps, immaculate yellow underparts, beady yellow eye, and protruding fine tail filaments which lend the bird its name. A scarce bird was found hiding in a vine tangle, in the form of a Brown Nunlet which betrayed its inconspicuous presence through its call. At one point we heard the strange bubbling sound of a Striated Antthrush and decided to go in for it. On the way in we disturbed a small rusty bird up onto an open branch, which turned out to be a dapper Chestnut-belted Gnateater.

A short time later we found the antthrush calling from a well-concealed perch a few feet off the ground. Aside from the birds, which are of course, always my primary focus, being a bird junkie, were some other classic Amazonian animals, which included a Technicolor Ecuadorian Poison Dart Frog, a massive tarantula lurking a little too close to my cabin, and a troop of Black-mantle Tamarins.

Just a brief morning in La Selva remained...

02 November 2012

Back to the Amazon...ECUADOR (27-28 Oct)

After barely a few weeks back from Peru, I was returning to the Amazon again, although this time in Ecuador, my current home country. This time it was at the invite of La Selva Lodge (http://www.laselvajunglelodge.com/?gclid=CMak98zzsLMCFQ70nAodTUIAXw). There are a handful of luxury lodges accessible from the Napo River in Ecuador, although this was one of the few I had not been to. The lodge had recently undergone a significant re-investment and development under new ownership, and the new main lodge building was magnificent, with a dramatic scene overlooking a scenic blackwater lagoon, named Garzacocha.

A short afternoon walk with Cristina, Desiree (two friends from the Tropical Birding office who were also on this FAM trip), on a hot, sunny afternoon was fairly quiet. Highlight bird-wise was a citrus and violet Amazonian (formerly Violaceous) Trogon, and a Common Scale-backed Antbird. A Variegated Tinamou toyed with me again, showing little interest in responding to my playback, and remains well and truly off my life list! Best sighting was this odd looking frog which Desiree managed to find.

In the evening we enjoyed a magical canoe ride around Garzacocha, where we saw Sand-colored Nighthawk gliding above it a short time before dusk, and we also managed to get up close with several Common Pauraques calling incessantly along the lake edge. Many other night birds and night sounds could be heard, making this a great experience including Tawny-bellied Screech-OwlCrested Owl, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

 More from La Selva to come...