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...