31 December 2014

Birding with the Stars....ECUADOR (9th Nov.)

I guess we've all heard of "Dancing with the Stars", and so why not Birding with the Stars!?

Anyway, after leaving the dry, Kapok-studded, deciduous woodland of Jorupe behind, we climbed up higher in the Andes to the reserve of Utuana, tucked away out of sight of most passers by. The reason for our visit was abundantly clear; hummingbirds, and 2 very special ones indeed, which are specialties of the south of Ecuador and northern Peru...Luckily, they are both straightforward to find at the feeders within the forest, a thirty minute walk in from the main road. However, that is all that is straightforward about these birds; they are far from ordinary looking, both dazzlingly beautiful, especially the Rainbow Starfrontlet, which has been known to make grown men weep! Here are a few snaps of what we enjoyed over a very exciting lunch deep within the reserve, with not another tourist sole around....Their "dowdy" companion (for nest to that species, anything looks under-dressed), was a handful of Purple-throated Sunangels.
 Next up, we were on the trail of one of Ecuador's most famous birds, the Jocotoco Antpitta, a bird completely unknown to science until 1997, when a certain Robert Ridgely spotted one, and the path of Ecuadorian bird tourism and conservation was changed irreparably...

29 December 2014

Flirting with Peru...ECUADOR (8th-9th Nov.)

After finishing up with the "parakeets of gold" in Buenaventura (i.e. El Oro Parakeets), we were soon on our way heading south, in the direction of Peru. We stopped just short of entering Peru, but could see the Peruvian hills lurking in the distance, as we stopped in at another wonderful reserve of the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation: Jorupe. I have been going to Jorupe since 2005, before the foundation built their fantastic lodge, Urraca Lodge, or "Jay Lodge" (when translated), named after one of its most prominent resident, the steely blue and Ariel white, White-tailed Jay. While we had been in wet, humid evergreen forest in the foothills of the Andes just before, we moved away and into a remarkably different habitat; we now stood among largely leafless deciduous woodland, dotted with giant gnarly Kapok trees. While the ground underfoot had been positively damp in Buenaventura, here in Jorupe it was parched; it had not rained in more than 2 months! This is a joy of southern Ecuador; remarkably different habitats in close geographic proximity.
In reality the birding, in general, within Jorupe, was relatively slow, compared to previous visits. However, the feeders, were magnetic, with action all day long. Some 13 different bird species visited during our time there, some of which were species that never visit feeders anywhere else in the world, giving us great photo opps. of some local species. 
First off, I really need to show the flagship bird of the reserve, the beautiful, and bold, White-tailed Jay, a species confined to the dry Tumbesian biogeographic region that covers southwest Ecuador and northern Peru...
Another near constant at Jorupe's brilliant feeders, was the Whooping Motmot, named for its, well, whooping, calls...
I had been secretly hoping that one of the lodge's rarer birds was attending the feeders at the time; Pale-browed Tinamou, a usually extremely secretive bird (again, an endemic species, only known from this region of southern Ecuador and northern Peru). However, on talking to the lodge's knowledgeable local guide, Leo, it became clear it had not been around for a matter of weeks, and so the feeders were looking to be forlorn of this bird. Therefore, imagine my surprise when this individual ignored local advice, and sauntered out into the open...
As well as grain and fruit attracting birds at the main feeders, the lodge also has a series of hummingbird feeders. However, do not be fooled into thinking that these are for hummingbirds; nope, while we were there there was not a single hummingbird in sight within sight of the feeders. However, we were not complaining about this, as instead of hummers, the visitors involved two gaudy species if orioles: Yellow-tailed and White-edged Orioles...
We took a ride into the frontier town of Macara, where people were walking the airport, as it has been out of action for years; in between the town's people out for a walk though, a young male Peruvian Meadowlark roamed the edges, and Pacific Parrotlets dotted the roadside wires...
Away from the feeders, it was oppressively hot, so much so that little was active after a few hours after dawn; all I saw away from there was a single uncooperative Watkins's Antpitta, while at night the tiny Peruvian Screech-Owl emerged to perched aside the lodge, below eye level...
Next stop was Utuana, back up in the mountains among montane forest, which came equipped with extremely colurful hummingbirds...

24 December 2014

Mining for Parakeets...ECUADOR (5th & 6th Nov.)

My custom photo tour continued, spending these days in and around Buenaventura reserve in southern Ecuador. This reserve has been set up by the fantastic Jocotoco Conservation Foundation, that operates lodges, which then funnel back money to conservation, in order to purchase ever more much needed land for protection in Ecuador. The reserve covers a range of elevations in the foothills of the west slope of the Andes, and contains an exciting mix of birds of the Choco biogeographic region of the north, with others more typical for the south.
This Jocotoco reserve, like their others, has been set up to save some threatened species, particularly in this case, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, El Oro Parakeet, El Oro Tapaculo, and Ochraceous Attila, among others.
We worked the dirt entrance road for periods in the morning and afternoon of our first day, which has patches of sparse trees, allowing better light conditions than the deep forest. While this proved challenging photography overall, due to long periods of inactivity, we had some good results by the end of our time there. We did well for raptors in this regard, managing to photograph a Laughing Falcon, quite literally, laughing at us; and also several Gray-backed Hawks, an impressive hawk that is a regional endemic. I also managed to fluff my lines there, as far as photographing quality birds go. I managed to tape in the scarce Ochraceous Attila to the perfect perch, only to find that my camera settings had changed, due to a dial turning while rubbing against my body shortly before, unbeknown to me. Thus, as I went to examine what I thought would be killer shots, I found, to my dismay what had happened. A great, and rare, opportunity to photograph this ginger flycatcher had passed me by! 
Luckily though the group I was with did get it, which brought some relief and compensation. Also along the road there we chanced upon an atypically static Squirrel Cuckoo, a common species that I had not yet photographed well, and was new for the group too. Our time along the road also yielded a Western Slaty-Antshrike (recently renamed Black-hooded Antshrike), and Fasciated Tiger-Heron standing, frozen, by a rushing creek. However, it may best be remembered for a glorious Chestnut-mandibled Toucan posing in a treetop.
Periods around the lodge itself were punctuated by photo sessions with the hummingbirds and other birds and animals that visit the feeders. At the sugar feeders Brown Violet-ears and Green-crowned Brilliants preened their immaculate plumage, various Violet-bellied Hummingbirds glowed beside the feeders, and Green Thorntails displayed their namesake feature, in between frantic bouts of feeding; and every so often Green Honeycreepers stole in and robbed sugar water from the hummingbirds. 

Also beside the lodge was a spritely Common Tody-Flycatcher, which seemed to declare it's territory every few seconds, and a more placid Saffron Finch beamed from the bushes too. The less subtle of the visitors though were the boisterous band of Rufous-headed Chachalacas, and some bold White-nosed Coatis, which have become a regular lodge fixture in recent years.
The toughest photography was when we entered the deep forest, although we did this not because we were masochists, ready to punish ourselves, but because we knew in order to photograph one special bird, that is where you needed to be. As we descended the trail to a narrow river, we could hear the deep cow-like moos of a displaying male Long-wattled Umbrellabird, and it did not take long to locate it at a traditional display ground. Strangely only one male was present, but he was all we needed to gain great shots of this extremely odd bird.
Our final time at the reserve was spent seeking the rarest and most emblematic of Buenaventura's birds, the El Oro Parakeet. This bird was only formally described in 1988 by Robert Ridgely "The Great", who has done so, so, much for Ecuadorian birds through his scientific research and conservation work. The birds name means The Gold Parakeet, in reference to the province of Ecuador, where gold has been mined (i.e. El Oro). Getting to see the bird was straightforward; nest boxes have been erected, and while the birds were not, at that time, nesting, they do regularly return to the boxes and around the boxes even when not nesting. So we saw them no problem, but were thwarted in our photo attempts by heavy low cloud. It took two visits, and then the bright sunshine on our second visit led to more than satisfactory shots of this extremely rare bird that is confined to with the borders of Ecuador.
Our next stop, believe it or not, was to yield yet more photos still. One of the joys of birding Southern Ecuador is the variety of habitats encountered over a relatively short distance. So far we had traveled into mangroves by boat, visited wetlands, and evergreen forested foothills. Next up was another very different Jocotoco Conservation Foundation reserve, Jorupe, set within dry wooded hills, carpeted in deciduous trees...

22 December 2014

It don't matter if you're black-and-white...ECUADOR (1st Nov.)

I had been way too long this year, following hip surgery, office-bound, and city-bound. By November I was free to return to normal life, such that it is. And so, I set out on tour with a person that I had guided before, from Sri Lanka, who also brought his good friend from Malaysia. Two remarkably different looking Asians, being guided by an "Englishman abroad", in Ecuador; we must have looked quite an odd crowd! My Sri Lankan friend had been with me photographing birds in northwest Ecuador, and this time he was interested in sampling the very different avian riches of Ecuador's "deep south". We started out in the city of Guayaquil, set out on a boat trip through the Manglares Charute shortly afterwards, but by the end of the day had climbed out of the coastal plain and up into the foothills of the Andes, and the wonderful Buenaventura reserve.
The mangrove boat trip was not particularly impressive, and was a bit of an experiment to see what we could photograph. We had some successes, with close ups of Snail Kite, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, and numerous Cocoi Herons, South America's answer to the Great Blue Heron/Grey Heron. On the way out from the boat trip a roadside Peruvian Pygmy-Owl had us out of the car, and brandishing cameras in a heartbeat. We also got to see the area star attraction, Horned Screamer, for which the bird is most famous for among birders, being rare and local in Ecuador. 
After the long journey from the coast, we pulled into the Buenaventura reserve, an area of foothill forest run by the excellent Jocotoco Conservation Foundation. This reserve was set up principally to save much needed habitat for the rare and endemic El Oro Parakeet, and other rare species found within its boundaries like Long-wattled Umbrellabird, El Oro Tapaculo, and Ochraceous Attila. As we bumped along the entrance road, with heavy rain coming down in the late afternoon, we noticed a bedraggled figure perched, unwisely, on an open dead branch, where a Bat Falcon, had clearly taken the full force of the downpour. Before we sat down for lunch we were adding another bird to the trip list and photography list, when one of a regular pair of Black-and-white Owls called repeatedly with the sense that it was trying to make absolutely sure we could locate it.
A great end to good opener; 2 owls, 1 day, I like those numbers!!!

More from Buenaventura to come...

20 December 2014

Into the Valley...ECUADOR (2 Nov.)

Having spent some time doing "patchwork" in Quito, I returned to my "other patch", one I can call that, as is almost a second home to me: the Tandayapa Valley. With a big conference on biodiversity occurring the following week in Ecuador's capital, a couple of attendees had decided on taking a day out of their pre-conference schedule to go and see what the Tandayapa Valley has to offer. On person, based in Norway, came in the night before, so after picking him up, we headed straight for the airport to meet a passenger coming in all the way from South Africa. Once we were all in the car we pointed westwards, towards the Tandayapa Valley. We packed a lot in to a small space on this day. Rather than racing to the hummingbird feeders at the lodge, an almost unavoidable urge, we instead, headed right up to the upper reaches of the valley, where the bromeliad-laden cloudforest offered us offered us one particularly special bird: Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. One of the participants had staked her claim for this bird, and so I did not want them to leave without it. Thankfully, we had great activity, which included at least 2 different Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans with it, not to mention a certain Grass-green Tanager too. While up there too, we also picked up a confiding Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch, Green-and-black Fruiteater and Red-crested Cotinga, before we retreated to the lodge for lunch. 
After lunch it was only natural to take in the swarm of hummingbirds at the famous feeders there, which led us to such avian gems as Western Emerald, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Booted Racket-tail, among many others. The hummingbird feeders were not the only feeders that were active though, and a Rufous Motmot and Crimson-rumped Toucanet also put in an appearance or two at the "papaya feeder". The former bird was particularly interesting, as it was a patch "tick" for me, having only recently been recorded on the lodge property.
The big gaping scarlet hole on our list though was a certain Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a bird that many wish not to leave the country without, and one look at this thrilling bird, it is easy ti understand why. It is the quintessential Andean bird in some ways. This did mean we would not touch down in Quito until a little later than planned, and with jetlag kicking in for some, I outlined this option, which was duly snapped up. Apparently cock-of-the-rock outweighed jetlag in its importance! So we slowly drifted down the Old Nono-Mindo Road, a site of a cock-of-the-rock lek (display area); but were stopped in our tracks by a clipped, crisp call from the roadside. We quickly jumped out of the vehicle, and soon after clapped eyes on the culprit, a beautiful, Beautiful Jay, a very unexpected bonus for the day. This scarce navy blue jay is an endemic to the region, and one you can iss during a dedicated search over several days, let alone on a day trip with so much other birds to look for on the agenda, a search had not even been planned! The final "stanza" of the day was played out by Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, several gaudy vermilion males of which danced in the telescope to the delight of the group. That was supposed to be the final show of the day, but a fruiting tree in the area led to yet more quality birds; holding another Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and also at least 3 Crested Quetzals to boot; a Technicolor end to the day if ever there was one!

One day; 2 Grass-green Tanagers, 2 Beautiful Jays, 3 Crested Quetzals, 3 Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, at least 4 Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, and 2 Rufous Motmots; enough for any day!

Next stop was Ecuador again, although this time down south, where a couple of Asian photographers had arrived to take pictures of the most impressive birds of the region...

18 December 2014

Better Trains than British Rail!...ECUADOR (1st Nov.)

I had only been away for a short time, but had managed to miss a Mourning Warbler slinking around the Quito Botanic Gardens. I headed down there full of enthusiasm as to what else may have dropped in for my arrival back in Ecuador's capital. Unfortunately, during an afternoon visit, migrants were not too plentiful, with the best I could muster being 4 Eastern Kingbirds wolfing down berries by the entrance; a single Snowy-throated Kingbird;  a handful of Swainson's Thrushes; and a male Summer Tanager, which gave itself away with its incredibly distinctive "chituk" call.

So, the star performers turned out to be not the migrants that I had headed down there for, but a resident species, which gave me its best ever showing. Each and every visit to these wonderful gardens is punctuated with sightings of the resident Black-tailed Trainbearers; a stunning hummingbird, the males of which exhibit a barely believable long tail (the "train" of the name), that trails behind them. However, they are invariably high in the trees, doing dazzling display flights up high and out of camera range. However, on this day I bumped into a resting male, which unlike most hummingbirds, rested for a solid five minutes allowing me to reel off a series of photos. The same area held a marvellous, boisterous, punk-haired, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet too; another resident of the area.

Thus, the migrants may have let me down, but the resident Andean birds stepped up to the plate, and gave me yet more great photographic memories of the park to look back on.

Next up, I was returning to another "patch" of mine, the Tandayapa Valley for a day trip out of Quito, which was packed with some of the best birds in the area...