07 October 2016

An Owl Without a Name…ECUADOR (25 Sept)

Having battled both horizontal rain and near hurricane-force winds in the Papallacta area, we were quite pleased to see ourselves walk away with a good trio of the scarcer species: The Andean answer to the nuthatch, Giant Conebill; one of the burliest tanagers of all, in the form of a pair of Masked Mountain-Tanagers foraging in spite of the gloomy conditions; and best of all, the ptarmigan-like Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe that took no small amount of willpower and stubbornness to see, considering the awful conditions that greeted our every try. It was, though time to move on to a lower site, and the famous Cabanas San Isidro. We moved off in the afternoon, arriving just in time for dinner, and just in time for their most famous avian resident

Almost 20 years ago, a visiting birder remarked to a resident bird guide at San Isidro that hed had a Black-and-white Owl outside his cabin during the night. This would, of course, always be of interest, for seeing an owl always peeks interest in others, but particularly birders. However, there was a twist in the tale to this particular sighting. This created a stir beyond the norm. For, at that time, there were only two known black-and-white owl species in Ecuador. The first, named appropriately Black-and-white Owl, was not especially uncommon, but was completely confined to the other, western, slope of the Andes. In a place like Ecuador, where there is a double chain of the Andean Mountains running north-south, the valley that divides these, and the considerable height of the mountains themselves (some surpassing 5000m), make for a very significant barrier to bird movements. Subsequently, there are many species that are found on one side of the Andes, but never on their opposite counterpart. Black-and-white Owl fell into this category; it had never been even glimpsed on the eastern slope of the Andes at all in Ecuador, making this species extremely unlikely to explain the sighting at San Isidro. Thus, looking for a more likely explanation, birders looked to the other species: Black-banded Owl, a species that at least could be said to occur on the correct side of the Andes. However, this did not quite fit either; this was a purely Amazonian species, confined to humid lowland forests near sea level. San Isidro is a great distance from those forests, being surrounded by wet, cool cloud forests of some 2000m elevation. Birders were at an impasse. The obvious follow-up question was then, well, what does it look like, for which the equally confusing answer is, a combination of the two. But the two species have no way of coming into contact with each other being geographically well separated, making the hybrid theory hard to swallow too. Another follow-up question could be, What does it sound like?. This is where the story becomes even more convoluted, for it sounds like both Black-and-white Owl and Black-banded Owl, for they too sound quite like each other, offering no further light on the tricky concept of identifying this new owl. Indeed, the similarity of plumage coloration and the vocalizations of the Black-and-white and Black-banded Owls have brought some to propose they are indeed all one species anyway. This would then make the case of the San Isidro Owl a moot point, as it would then, presumably, merely be considered a form of that wider single species. However, that "lumping" of the two species has never happened, or has ever been in existence previously, but is merely spoken of from time to time. And so the owl has become known simply as the San Isidro Mystery Owlor "San Isidro Owl" for it is indeed mysterious, and people have struggled to give it a name that will stick, other than that one. 
All of which leads to our first nights attempt. From my previous visits, and from the local manager, Alejandros, confirmation of this continued trend once we had arrived at the lodge, we expected to have our best chance at seeing this curious bird after dinner. Almost constantly, for years and years following its remarkable discovery, the bird has been nothing if not cooperative, turning up almost nightly to visit the lodges lights, where dozens of moths and other insects offer up easy prey. One or two of these owls often come in, and are often quite fearless of the fascinated birders gathered in awe below. On occasion, they have been known to bring in their recent offspring too. On this night we set out from our cabins for dinner, although opted out of the shortcut to the restaurant in favour of quickly checking the recent haunts of this handsome pied owl, in case it was an early riser on this evening. And there sat out on an open Cecropia branch was San Isidros namesake owl, looking every bit as mysterious as it should! A wonderful opener to our time in San Isidro. In the end, we managed to see this bird on each of our three nights at the lodge, making it very cooperative, but no less mysterious.

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