31 July 2009

The Curious Case of the San Isidro Owl (E Ecuador): July 29, 2009

The photos above are of San Isidro’s now famous “mystery owl”. Many years back this bird was found right around the cabins at San Isidro, and one or two of them have been an almost nightly fixture ever since, often visible between the cabins and the lodge restaurant, where it can be extraordinarily confiding.

The question remains though, WHAT EXACTLY IS IT? The location and elevation add to this mystery. There are two species of Ciccaba owls in Ecuador, Black-and-white Owl, and Black-banded Owl. The former is confined to the western slope of the Andes at elevations usually lower than 1300m, while Black-banded Owl is found on the same slope of the Andes as the San Isidro Owl (east slope), although only in the lowlands and foothills, (up to around 900m elevation). Distributions of birds in the Ecuadorian Andes are often tied strongly to a particular slope, as the two parallel chains of the Andes that form the north-south spine of the country, are divided by a dry inter-Andean valley that provides a substantial barrier to bird migration. The harsh dry, semi-desert like environment of this inter-Andean valley is not readily hospitable to many bird species, and a relatively low number of birds are found there relative to the wetter, forested eastern and western slopes. So by implication the bird at San Isidro should not be a Black-and-white Owl, and is arguably more likely to be a Black-banded Owl that is at least found on the same side of the Andes. However, that species has never knowingly been recorded above much lower elevations. On top of all of that the bird appears somewhere between the two in plumage, so does not really fit either one perfectly. As the calls of both Black-banded, Black-and-white and the “mystery owl” are basically the same, this does not enlighten us any further either.

One argument is that it represents a whole new species of Ciccaba owl, and many a lister sure hopes so! The final argument is that maybe both Black-banded and Black-and-white Owls are actually one species anyway (they certainly call the same), and if you follow this argument through then the San Isidro Owl is then probably within this larger species. Who knows what it really is, but it really is one intriguing owl, and an interesting mystery. Maybe genetic studies of all the “species” will one day reveal all. Until then I will be keeping an eye out on the way to dinner for it sitting in its favored cecropia tree. Whether is a new species, an old species, or all one species it is one very smart owl all the same!

27 July 2009

Palenque's Island Paradise (NW Ecuador): July 6, 2009

Took a visit to the forest island of Rio Palenque, a magical bit of lowland rainforest hemmed in on all sides by plantations. Despite the grim reality, Palenque is a great place to bird and provides an easy going place to go after lowland forest species. I enjoyed a day here watching a Black-headed Antthrush walk with its chicken-like gait through the leaf litter, bumping into White-whiskered Puffbirds (see photo) "hissing" at me from the forest edge, observing Red-billed Scythebills, with their absurdly curved reddish bills creeping up trunks of trees, and watching the ginger form of the rare Ochraceous Attila hanging our in a young plantation at the forest edge. Not where you would think to look for an endangered species at all, although that is excatly where it likes to be at Palenque. Best of all though I finally nailed my all time nemesis bird in Ecuador, Little Tinamou, that finally put me out of my misery by walking across an open trail. It was a long and painful wait! Other highlights included a "barrage" of trogons in one particular area where Ecuadorian Trogons tried to outcall the neighbouring White-taled and Violaceous Trogons which were all shouting at each other in a small patch of open forest. A cute Pacific Pymgy-Owl also came in to check me out, a Ruddy Foliage-gleaner provided a rare treat by uncharacteristically staying put on an open branch for a while, a group of Orange-fronted Barbets (see photo) sprayed sawdust down on me as they excavated a hole, and several Whiskered Wrens and Gray-and-gold Warblers were found creeping around the understorey. A small reserve, but one that from this day at least appears to be packed with good birds.

11 July 2009

True Blue at Guango…(Guango Lodge, E Ecuador): June 26, 2009

A couple more shots from the tiny Andean hideaway of Guango Lodge, that lies by the rushing mountain river of Guango (hence the name). Hanging out shooting hummers in the garden can be good for other birds too, and the days theme was very blue – with this Masked Flowerpiercer and a dazzling flock of Turquoise Jays that ignored us standing there and worked their territory as they pleased irrespective of our close presence. If only all birding days could be this easy!

10 July 2009

Panchita's Perfect 10...Guango Lodge (Eastern Ecuador): June 26, 2009

Popped into the hummingbird paradise of Guango Lodge just across the continental divide, just over the rim on the eastern side of the Andes. This little lodge sits within bromeliad laden wet temperate forest, and has a magnetic set of hummingbird feeders on their small veranda. Usually here the Sword-billed Hummingbirds with their impossibly long bills, and subsequent necessary odd feeding actions steal the show. However, although we were surrounded by Collared Incas, Tourmaline Sunangels, and a marauding pack of Masked Flowerpiercers, and even though an aquamarine troop of excellent Turquoise Jays swept through the garden, it was none of these that made the day special. It was the outrageously confiding performance of "Panchita" the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta that came in to feed on worms laid out for it that stole the headlines. In fact this bird was so habituated just throwing in a few stones would lead it to come running, so convinced was "she" that food was on its way! Excellent that this current swathe of antpitta feeding stations continues to prosper in Ecuador, giving us all a great shot at getting many of these normally furtive species up close and personal.

09 July 2009

Cartoon Hummer... (Tandayapa, NW Ecuador): June 2009

Here are a couple of shots of the frankly ridiculous Booted Racket-tail (or Racket-tailed Puffleg if you prefer that name), a hummingbird that looks like no other. You could not make this one up!

08 July 2009

Ecuador’s Hummingbird Mountains…(Tandayapa, NW Ecuador): June 2009

Have been “camped out” at the lodge hummingbird feeders at Tandayapa Lodge for the days with a group of professional photographers, including “photo professors”, John and Barbara Gerlach who teach this stuff for a living. These are some of the results from their impromptu “workshop”. We were photographing them using a series of four flashes, and a whole lot of other paraphernalia! The top bird is a male Purple-throated Woodstar, that sounds a lot like a bumble when it flies in, and the vivid green number with the violet face patch is a Green Violet-ear (the ears of which can be flared out when excited or in battle with another hummer for the same feeder), while the last one with the chestnut “armpits” is a Buff-tailed Coronet, the most aggressive of all the Tandayapa hummers that often stands guard by their chosen spot. Trouble is there are just too many hummers to keep in check, and so many other birds get into the feeders in spite of this exhausting, energy-sapping strategy by the coronet!

01 July 2009

The Cavebirds of Chontal…(Cueva de los Tayos, NW Ecuador): June 22, 2009

This red letter day saw me travelling to a deep, dark ravine close to the tiny Andean town of Chontal in NW Ecuador. My aim: to get close-up looks at a true avian oddity, the unique Oilbird (see photos). So named as in some countries (although strangely undocumented for here in Ecuador), humans have in the past harvested the young birds for their high oil content, (young birds bring a whole new meaning to word “fatty”, as they routinely carry an enormous amount of weight, often weighing half again as much as an adult). That is not all that is strange about this bird though, as their regular haunts are caves and deep, dark gullies in the rainforest. As they inhabit such shady environments, they are also one of the few birds that can navigate by echolocation, much in the same way that bats do at night, (there are few other birds that do this at all, although some tiny swifts, known as swiftlets, that inhabit dark caves in Asia can also do this). Last but not least, they are also the only bird on Earth that forages for fruit at night. The bird is so odd and different from anything else, that the species occupies its own monotypic family (i.e. it is a one species family).

To see the bird was a bit of an ordeal to say the least, but one hell of an adventure and I would recommend it to all. After a several hour drive from Tandayapa we arrived at a dusty farm track, where Hugo Morales, the owner of the “finca” soon turned up in his tractor (see photo), our necessary mode of transport for getting to the oilbirds. That was however, not the end of this particular adventure, as the sight of a series of rickety, wet bamboo ladders (see photos) soon greeted me, leading down into a dank, deep gorge. It was at that point I realized I had failed to notice the bright orange safety harnesses that had been loaded on the tractor with me earlier, (bizarrely splashed with the words “British Airways” across them!) I clipped into the harness and descended the first ladder without incident, and thought this would make the next one a piece of cake. However, the next ladder had a slightly unnerving angle to it, and had the added bonus (!) of being right alongside a small waterfall so that when I climbed down I received a regular dose of cold water from the Andes splashing down my left arm. Finally I stood in the deep shadows at the bottom of the ladder and my eyes soon picked up the huge brown shapes of Oilbirds flapping off the side of the cliff beside me, followed by a truly ungodly racket they made when they disturbed one another. This “greasy” bird is certainly not going to be winning any song contests! Once the birds settled down I realized right alongside in a small dark hollow in the cave wall was an adult nestled with a young bird on a small dark ledge (see photo), barely visible to me just feet away. I then set about photographing them in some of the most challenging conditions I had met to date. I am fond of the quirky in the birdworld and this was right up there at the top of the strange category, a huge, nocturnal, fruit-eating bird that dwells in dark caverns, and navigates by echolocation. That is the appeal of the oilbird, an avian oddity of note!