28 June 2009

Fruit Frenzy…(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): June 21, 2009

Aside from the usual distraction of “Maria”, the Giant Antpitta, bouncing around on the trail beside us, and a “bucket load” of hummers at the sugar feeders, (including the spellbinding, and seductive Velvet-purple Coronet, a living work of art), once again one of the highlights of Angel Paz’s “three-stage show” was the “fruit blind”, where fruit loving birds from the forest came screaming in to feed on the bounty that Angel laid out for them, (bananas and grapes mainly). Top among them were again a colorful troop of Toucan Barbets (see photo) bursting juicy purple grapes, a group of Sickle-winged Guans flapped clumsily about the bananas, and vibrant green Crimson-rumped Toucanets and brilliantly colored Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers (see photo) also competed for our attentions at the hanging harvest. This is a truly special spot (Paz de las Aves), in a very special set of mountains (the Andes), in an indisputably special country for birds (Ecuador).

15 June 2009

Volcano Highway...(Eastern Ecuador): June 15, 2009

We spent a few hours birding an unbirded road within the Amazon rainforest near the "oil town" of Lumbaqui. The birding was slow, with the legendary barrage of sound that you would expect from an Amazonian site completely missing, with just a "mute" dawn experienced by us today. A constant backdrop however were the noisy troops of Squirrel Monkeys "whistling" and crashing through the trees by the deserted roadside. The birding was desperately slow until Nick Athanas picked up a group of Scaled Pigeons hanging out in the treetops, and better still Iain Campbell noticed a massive Ornate Hawk-Eagle sitting majestically in a tree.

We then hit the long road back to the capital Quito, picking up few birds but some impressive volcanic sights along the way - well worth a stop or two. The snowy one is Cayambe, (that sits impressively above forest-cloaked Andean hillsides below, and the vast Amazon jungle framing it lower still stretching out onto the horizon), and the smokin' one is Reventador, one of Ecuador's more active volcanos that covered the local area in a layer of ash when it erupted spectacularly in November 2002.

11 June 2009

Antpitta Lurks in the Crater…(Pululahua, NW Ecuador): June 3, 2009

Take a browse through the plates of all the antpittas within the excellent Ecuador bird guide by Robert Ridgley and Paul Greenfield, and you will NOT find Rusty-breasted Antpitta. And yet that is exactly what we were going after today (among other tricky targets), on Brian’s “Hit List from Hell” of birds. The reason it is not in the field guide is simple: when they published this landmark guide to all Ecuadorian birds it was not known to occur in this tiny Andean country. It was not found in Ecuador until 2003, when two separate small populations were found of this little rusty antpitta: Paul Coopmans discovered a small population lurking in the bamboo-cloaked slopes near Utuana in the southern province of Loja, and Nick Athanas independently found a population in the north of the country, at Pululahua in Pichincha province, (that is also the province of the capital, Quito). It is this latter site that we were visiting for this scarce Ecuadorian antpitta on this day. Since its discovery it has been found to be locally common among thick swathes of bamboo that can make it a tricky customer to see. However, before we birded the bamboo-choked sides of the Pululahua volcanic crater, we dropped in to an area of dry scrub and cacti right on the equator at Calacali located within the dry inter-andean valley that separates the western and southern chains of the Andes. Here we searched for some dry country species, finding a couple of them – firstly a non-breeding plumage male Purple-collared Woodstar (a seasonal visitor to the area), and an austral migrant that breeds in southern in South American, and a very small number of which spend the austral winter here in Ecuador – White-throated Hawk, that tortured me by gliding extremely low over our heads, as I realized I had left my Canon camera on the car seat and missed a sweet moment that I could have nailed a photo of this rare raptor.

Onto Pululahua, as we drove down into the volcanic crater swathes of bamboo could be seen cloaking the steep sides to the crater, all good habitat for this tiny Andean antpitta. However, we hurried on to a known spot where a narrow trail cuts right into the bamboo giving us some great views into some of the few openings within these dense stands of bamboo. Just what was required for getting a glimpse of this grallaricula antpitta, a close relative of “Shakira”, the Ochre-breasted Antpitta that we had seen and photographed earlier on the tour. Several bursts of my recording had little effect, being met with nothing but stony silence from the wall of bamboo in front of us. I tried and tried, and had to choose instead to hit another spot lower down, as this territory appeared vacant. It was only when we were just about to alight our vehicle that a lazy and distinctive “twa-twa-twa-twa-twa” emanated from the bamboo. The Rusty-breasted Antpitta (see photos) had decided, (if a little belatedly), to play after all. We made our back up the track, popped the “tape” again, and it jumped up right out in front of us on an exposed branch for us all to ogle, a bird not even in the field guide. Fantastic.

09 June 2009

What a Beautiful Day!…(Tandayapa, NW Ecuador): June 2, 2009

Our final full day of this intense birding trip was spent checking the trails around Tandayapa Bird Lodge (1750m), and later birding the Upper Tandayapa Valley (2250m). The trails produced two separate Ochre-breasted Antpittas that we just walked onto feeding beside the trails, a White-throated Quail-Dove that walked brazenly out onto the open trail after a little tempting with my I-pod, several Golden-winged Manakins “burping” at us in display mode, the chicken-like Rufous-breasted Antthrush that strutted off trail, and a single Olivaceous Piha grabbing fruits out of a tree above us on the “Antpitta Trail”. However this all paled into insignificance compared to the dashing Beautiful Jay (see photos) that came in to check us out while we stood on the lower deck bird observation platform just before lunch. This is a scarce bird only found in parts of northwest Ecuador and in southern Colombia (the Choco region), so any encounter with it is a good one, although this one performed with distinction, giving us all “eye-damaging views”!

The afternoon was not half bad either, with a dapper looking pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans up on the “Tandayapa Ridge”, a bright scarlet male Andean Cock-of-the-rock on the way up the valley, a striking Crimson-mantled Woodpecker in a silvered cecropia tree, a female Powerful Woodpecker battering the bark of a roadside dipterocarp, and a couple of Turquoise Jays to add to the deeper-blue beautiful jay that performed so perfectly around the lodge during the lunch recess.

07 June 2009

Fruiteater Fun down at the Farm…(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): May 30, 2009

Yes it was just one of those cool mornings where there was simply too much action, and too many photo opps to not make yet another entry. (You may have guessed I kind of like this place-a guides dream where the birds come to you and therefore you can just sit back, relax and take them all in one-by-one). Brian, the birder half of the Canadian couple who joined me for this tour, had brought along with him “the hit list from hell” as it generally involved a list of really, really difficult birds. We set to the task anyhow and he quietly mentioned that Orange-breasted Fruiteater (see photos of male and female above) was his new number one target, and the gauntlet was thrown (he got his original number one target, Beautiful Jay, on the first day!). On climbing back out from Angel’s steep Antpitta Valley we emerged into the bright sun and some frantic activity at the hummer feeders on the forest edge. However, the hummers were not what caught our attention, but the high-pitched whistles emanating from a dense patch of fruiting trees – a fruiteater lurked within. Angel allowed me to pop the tape on this one, and a little use of the I-pod brought the bird close in, to reveal was a mean green machine female, nice but no cigar. While Brian and Jackie focused on such treats as a glistening Velvet-purple Coronet (often proclaimed as the best hummer on Earth), I set about trying to locate a male that must be sitting close by. Once I picked up that a second bird was calling I called everyone over when Angel calmly gestured to a gaudy male perched up in the treetops. Mission accomplished. What a place, what a morning – Ochre-breasted and Giant Antpittas, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Toucan Barbets, and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, not to mention a lone Olivaceous Piha.

06 June 2009

Onto the Antpittas…(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): May 30, 2009

I would be a travesty not to mention Angel’s star birds too, the antpittas. Today we picked up two species from this star entourage – beginning with “Shakira”, an Ochre-breasted Antpitta (see photo). These birds customarily wiggle from side-to-side when sitting on a branch, and it was this wiggling motion, (that conjures images of the famous pint-sized Colombian pop star), that led Angel to name this bird Shakira! (Ridiculous but true). “She” performed with aplomb, coming in close to the worms that Angel tossed “her” way (males and female look the same, so who knows which sex it is).

The star-studded cast of Antpittas is topped by Giant Antpitta, several of which are found within Angel’s cloudforest reserve. “Old Faithful” is “Maria” that has been coming regularly since he opened this reserve some 4 years ago. However, that particular antpitta was a no show on the day, just when we were losing faith though in any of them rocking up, a raggedy looking individual Giant Antpitta (see photo) emerged gingerly onto the path, a bird Angel refers to as “Corino” (a Spanish term of endearment meaning “honey”). Phew, that was a close call. However, try as we might a calling Yellow-breasted Antpitta would not play the game and stuck steadfastly to its hill hideout well upslope. Two antpittas in a morning though is nothing to grumble about at any other place, although of course Angel’s place is not quite like any other place!

05 June 2009

Feeding Frenzy, Part II...(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): May 30, 2009

Just a couple more photographs from Angel's red hot fruit feeders...female Red-headed Barbet, and Sickle-winged Guan.

Feeding Frenzy at Paz’s Fruit Feeders…(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): May 30, 2009

Deep in the cloudforests of the Andes of northwest Ecuador, there is a special place where one dedicated farmer, Angel Paz, and his family have worked tirelessly to create a very special reserve for birds. Having abandoned the idea of more orchards in favour for the birds he has developed techniques for habituating rare and difficult to see species, most notably antpittas, which has got him the nickname of the “Antpitta Whisperer”, and his place the nickname of the “Antpitta Farm”. His most prized assets, the antpittas, however are not the only things on offer there. This is a truly extraordinary private bird reserve in the Andes that usually springs a surprise or two.

Today’s treat was some of the best feeder action I have seen in Ecuador. Angel and his brother Rodrigo met us shortly after the sun had risen over the Andes, we donned our “wellies” (rubber boots) and headed down the steep trail into the heart of the cloudforest. Audacious Andean cock-of-the-rocks could be heard in the throws of their noisy early morning display antics in the valley below, although we headed straight off to the “Fruit Blind”. Once there the brothers Paz loaded up bowls with grapes and carefully laid out delicately sliced pieces of banana on bird tables a little way out from our position in the blind, overlooking a patch of moist bromeliad-laden forest. On our arrival a mob of hungry looking Sickle-winged Guans greedily patrolled the area, ready for the first fruit offerings, although it was only when the full spread had been laid out that the birds really got going, guan numbers swelling to at least 8 birds and then other species dropped in left right and centre in a flurry of intense feeding activity. In addition to the clumsy guans wolfing down grapes, a mixed group of flashy Tanagers descended from the treetops, as a group of 6 Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers mixed in with their commoner brethren, the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers to get in on the banana action at the table. Not to be outdone, a greedy troop of Toucanets also dropped in with at least 4 different Crimson-rumped Toucanets (see photo) crashing into the feeding area. Less dramatic was a subdued female Red-headed Barbet that popped up right outside the blind. However, arguably the star billing came from a tally of three Toucan Barbets (the “Clowns of the Andes”) – see photo - that also found the bananas to their liking. All this crazy action played out within fifteen feet of me and a couple from Canada who waited quietly in the hide beside. With all this top action however we just could not keep quiet, although for the frantic five minutes of intense grappling over the fruits, none of the birds cared one jot. All too soon it was over, the tanagers retreated to the treetops, and the barbets slinked back into the forest, just leaving a few shameless guans hanging about in front of the blind. An amazing early morning show at the “Antpitta Farm”, that just goes to prove there is a lot more than “just” antpittas to enjoy there.

04 June 2009

Wot no Birds! (Oak Harbor, Ohio)

In an effort to prove I am indeed a rounded individual with an interest in some non-bird things (honest), here is a "token" picture of a butterfly - a Black Swallowtail photographed in our Oak Harbor trailer park, this spring in Ohio.

Don't worry birders there are more bird pictures from my last few days around Tandayapa Lodge in Ecuador on there way soon...!