30 September 2017

Amazon to Andes; Topaz to Sunbeam (Ecuador): 18 Sept 2017

One of the great advantages of birding in a country as small as Ecuador (similar in size to US state of Colorado, smaller than Italy), which also has a decent road network, is that you can move from one sort of birding area to another rather swiftly. That is exactly what we did on this day, beginning our day with some dawn time birding at 300m/980ft in a hilly part of the humid Amazon jungle, but ending the day in the high Andes, in the positively cold Antisana area (in view of some distant snow cones), at nearly 11,600ft/3550m. Waking up at Gareno Lodge, having already visited their centrepiece attraction, the currently nesting Harpy Eagles, we did some local birding around their garden to start with. Once again, this yielded Fiery Topaz, a single male hovering overhead repeatedly, but typically refusing to land somewhere he could be photographed; (i.e. always in the near pitch-black forest understory. Grey-breasted Sabrewing was also visiting some flowers in the garden. With little else happening, we set off for an area near Tena, in the hope of a Sungrebe, on a lagoon there. En-route, a pair of Laughing Falcons were clearly worth stopping for...
While the day had opened without rain, this changed as we arrived on site, when the skies emptied above us. We sheltered for a while, waited for the rain to ease and then set off by boat for the Sungrebe. Unfortunately, during this rainy boat ride, we did not find that Amazonian wraith, but did see a feisty Poeppig’s Woolly Monkey, which seemed to take particular objection to us...
Meanwhile, an acrobatic White-bellied Spider-Monkey, doing gymnastics style movements overheads that US Olympic champion Simone Biles would be proud of. Nearby, a Graells's (Napo) Tamarin hugged the trunk of a tree tight, before suddenly launching into the jungle, and evaporating into thin air!
While nothing out of the ordinary was seen, any boat ride in the Amazon is exciting and magnetic, and we enjoyed some “Jurassic birds”, in the form of the many hissing Hoatzins that lumbered around the cecropias lining the banks of the lagoon, and a White-necked Puffbird sitting typically high on an open branch, with all the horrific backlight that goes with that; (the constant foe of nature photographers). If you have not seen a Hoatzin, this species/monotypic family is well worth observing, they simply feel like they are a species that existed while T Rex wandered the Earth, and has refused to evolve ever since! I mean this as a compliment by the way, I love Hoatzins, as they are unique, bizarre, and emblematic of the Amazon, a place that every keen birder should adore, as I do. 
An excellent traditional meal was taken for lunch (Maito de tilapia), prepared by our guide Pedro. This took the form of fish wrapped tightly within the leaves of a particular tree species, and cooked over hot coals, making it incredibly flavoursome, and combined with yucca and hot red chiles.  
With one of the party flying out of Quito that night, we had decisions to make; with limited time remaining, do we retry for the sungrebes at this new site (stated as normally reliable), or head straight for the high Andes and another target, the largest hummingbird on Earth, the Scarlet Tanager-sized, Giant Hummingbird? The odds were quickly weighed up, and with the hummingbird being nearly guaranteed, it was decided that we should in the direction of the 5700m (18,715ft)-high Antisana volcano, and a certain cafĂ© that sits within its shadow. As we traveled there from our position in Amazonian Tena, the time to get there ended up being a little longer than expected, making it a little tense in terms of bagging a last big bird for the tour participant. However, we arrived at Tambo Condor restaurant in time, with 45 minutes of light still remaining in the day. Immediately, the stark change in climate was palpable, and we were scrambling for extra layers, in spite of a slim time limit left to find that Goliath among hummers. Before, we had even started to look for that though, we admired Ecuador’s national bird on the wing overhead – Andean Condor, another giant of the bird world, with a wingspan that can reach 10ft/3m, or to put it another way, considerably wider (nearly 3feet more than), the height of NBA player Shaquille O’Neal, (think about that)! We admired its grace, and lack of need to take a single wingbeat, as it cruised the entire length of the valley effortlessly. 
We then moved to a small set of hummingbird feeders at Tambo Condor, where even in the frigid temperatures creeping into the late afternoon, hummingbirds were bustling, chasing their final feeds of the day. The first we were to see were a pair of Shining Sunbeams, both revealing their metallic coloured rumps that give rise to its extravagant name. Then, just around the corner sat the object of our quest, a Giant Hummingbird sitting there like he owned the joint, and dwarfing the sunbeams at their nearby feeder. While sunbeams may take the trophy for looks, Giant Hummingbird is impressive for its girth, it is one big hummingbird. 
A great end to a day that started with us watching Fiery Topaz hovering in the humid air of the Amazon, and finished with Shining Sunbeams rushing around within the icy air of the high Andes, where condors still circled overhead…

It had been a very memorable 3 days of birding, which were never meant to be for me, were it not for a delayed bag on American Airlines that opened the way for me to travel to the Amazon with said bag, (and bins and camera!). The rest is now part of my own personal avian history.

25 September 2017

Hail Harpy! (Ecuador): 17 Sept 2017

There are some bird species that seem to come from a higher plane of existence to all others around them; these absorb bird people in some way that often borders on the obsessive. These superior species are perhaps comparable to pieces of plumed art, which all agree are unique and special, and open to no objections to their senior status. These are nature’s avian icons. This can often be a very subjective choice, but with the Harpy Eagle, the word “iconic”, I am sure, would not be disputed by anyone with an interest in the feathered form. It is not just that it literally stands tall as disputably the largest eagle on Earth, it is also that it lives in remote regions of the mighty, and imposing Amazon jungle, where it’s range seems to stretch far and wide, but yet they still remain rarely seen, and always just out of reach. Unless there is a known nest at play
In my personal opinion, staked-out nests seem to be at an all-time low, due to politics (Venezuela), and abandonment (some of the recent Brazilian nests, for example). It is probably a fair reflection also that this lover of remote areas, away from the prying eyes of people, are finding a smaller world in which to live too. And so, demand for the eagle with the talons of a bear has risen exponentially in recent times. It was to this icon that we returned on this day…We had the nest, we just did not have the adult in our sights, just yet…
Following an enjoyable day in the company of a buffy juvenile Harpy Eagle, being the greedy birders that we are, we could not resist returning for another throw of the dice at finding the striking form of an adult Harpy. We awoke to a lack of rain, a good start, and enhanced our mood as we faced what we had by then nicknamed “Mount Gareno”, once more, (the steep hike to the secluded nest of the eagle). We set off as light quickly arose around us, and stopped little getting to the nest, with the local knowledge in hand that the female was said to remain roosting in the nesting tree only up until around 8-9am. 
We arrived at 8am, and after a quick scan were clear that on this day, she had not decided to remain until 9am after all; we could only see the hidden buffy form of the youngster sitting low in the nest, and not begging for food, indicating that perhaps the chance of an adult was rather unlikely in a while. And, to be clear, a while in “eagle land” may not be minutes, or even hours, but a day or more! Our mood sunk a little as we theorised this in our minds and spoke about it out loud. 
Then, out of the corner of our eyes a massive shape emerged silently from the forest canopy and glided effortlessly down on to the nest. Literally, The Eagle had Landed. This beautiful adult specimen stood in profile on the nest, and flew off soon after, when we realised the juvenile was ripping at a carcass in the nest, Which the adult must have dropped in with, but did so, so swiftly, we had missed this in the considerable adrenalin rush of being in the presence of one of the World’s most impressive avian predators. It took off sooner than we hoped, but then returned again, and sat on a branch alongside the nest calling enthusiastically, as we watched enthralled. Then it lifted off silently and vanished back into the forest, and the lair of its prey, monkeys and sloths.
However, the arrival of another birding group with Marcelo Andy perked us up, until American politics came up in conversation. However, an extremely cooperative Pavonine Quetzal soon drew us out of the political world and back into the natural world, as this scarlet and emerald gem sat above us calling. Then the high whistles of a Lanceolated Monklet, from the cute end of the puffbird family, peaked our interest, and we were soon watching one of a pair in full view of the juvenile Harpy Eagle. Life was not so bad after all…
The chick was transformed from its previous lethargic self, and vigorously attacked at the prey that had been left for it, while we desperately tried to identify it, but most of the time it was out of sight below the rim of the massive stick nest (the consensus seemed to veer towards squirrel monkey in the end). As it struggled with its fleshy meal it constantly called for help, but the adult showed no further sign of assistance, leaving its offspring to learn how to do this for itself. It may have laboured at this, but bits and pieces of monkey were digested over time. Once the monkey was mostly consumed, and activity died, we set off back for the lodge, with a spring in our step. I have seen Harpy on a number of occasions, but only once so well, and so splendidly, ironically at this very same site some 11 years previously.  
Our walk back was more than just filled with pleasant satisfaction at the eagle sighting, as we also saw a handsome Banded Antbird whistling to us from a fallen log, while just across the trail a Rusty-belted Tapaculo wandered within spitting distance (we did not spit at it though, to be clear!) Better still came with another Amazon Avian Classic: White-plumed Antbird, a species that seems to be better designed for cartoons than the rainforest, with its bizarre, immaculately trimmed ermine-toned plume. A few further Yellow-browed Antbirds were no less appreciated than they were the day before, and we also caught sight of a lekking Great-billed Hermit, by picking up the constant bobbing of the tail in timer with its incessant call. Once back at the lodge, we checked in on the Fiery Topazes in the lodge garden, which had returned for another afternoon performance, just before the curtain closed on an amazing day in the Amazon…
One more insane day followed, when we birded from 
Amazon to High Andes…

eBird List from this day

24 September 2017

Into the Heart of Darkness (Ecuador): 16th Sept. 2017

So, there I was, minding my own business, and planning an unspectacular weekend of going to gym, watching Premier League football (US=Soccer), and catching up on my eBird data for Borneo from this year’s tour. Not birding, but nothing to blog about; then I got THE call…

One of Tropical Birding’s clients was stranded in the Amazon without his luggage, which had come in a day late (thanks to American Airlines), and needed to be taken to him. The flight with his luggage arrived at midnight, and the drive to the Amazon was a 5-hour undertaking. A key element in all of this equation, was that the person was there at that time, for one very specific, and crucial objective, to photograph the pair of nesting Harpy Eagles. And so, after some extremely rapid preparation and reorganisation of the weekend, (e.g. loading Eastern Ecuador bird recordings on to I-Pods that were still holding bird calls from my most recent tour in Indonesia, of no use whatsoever to where I was heading, desperately charging batteries, knowing I was heading to a remote corner of Amazonian where electricity is virtually nil etc.), there I was meeting a driver and some luggage in the dark of night in Quito, and then heading even deeper into a darker night still in the Amazon, where streetlights gave way to stars, and population of people thinned to almost nothing but a few scattered shacks in the darkness.

We arrived, to find we had narrowly missed fellow Tropical Birding guide Jose Illanes and his luggage-less tour participant heading off for the Harpy Eagle nest for the day. The local manager of the lodge, (Pedro Aguinda) – Gareno Lodge – made matters only more perturbing, when he casually informed me that it was imperative that if I wanted to see an adult Harpy that we head off for the nest as soon as possible, as the adult at that time tended to head out for most of the day by 9am. It was now 7am and I had a gruelling 6km (3.7 miles) walk ahead of me, or to put it another way, a minimum 2-hour trek. Now, if you have visited some of the Napo Lodges in Ecuador (e.g. Sacha, Sani, Napo Wildlife Center), you probably have an image of an Amazon jungle that is wonderfully flat, if muddy and slippery, to walk among. That image does not apply to Gareno. Hilly is a much more appropriate word, making this much more of a trudge than a casual walk or light hike. To make matters worse still, a short way into the walk the rainforest lived up to its name, and brought its rain, lots and lots of it. However, I finally connected with Jose and Gerold, bundled up against the inclement weather, during this, the alleged dry season for the area, while the forest around us remained dark, like dawn had not yet fully shed its skin. Finally, we made it up to the top of the slick and slippery hill, which overlooked the nest of this giant forest eagle, (that vies with the Asian Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle and Steller’s Sea-Eagles for title of world’s largest).

Whilst I caught my breath, following the final exhausting climb to the viewpoint, Jose was just ahead and confirmed the adult was standing alongside the cream-coloured chick at the nest. However, by the time Gerold and I had returned to “birdable state” (i.e. caught our breath back), the adult had departed, leaving the soggy and forlorn chick behind. We spent a good deal of the day there photographing this still impressive bird, starting to look in size similar to an adult at this time, and waiting impatiently for a more strikingly patterned adult to silently reappear from the depths of the surrounding forest. However, after a 9am-2:30pm vigil, and still soaked through from the both the morning’s foul weather and demanding slog through the humid jungle, we decided to return to the lodge, and return to the quest the following day instead. It had been an enchanting time with the young Harpy Eagle, (that even shared the tree with a couple of inquisitive Bare-nacked Fruitcrows at one point) but we yearned for an adult to satisfy our greedy desires. As we strolled our way back through a dripping jungle, (but at least now not raining), we picked up a few classic Amazonian species, including cracking looks at both Golden-headed and Blue-backed Manakins, and the always appealing Yellow-browed Antbird, which is much more abundant here than some of the more familiar Amazonian lodges in the country. Cinereous Mourner was also another piece of good work by Jose, but got less plaudits than the others, its overall drabness letting down its status of scarcity.

Once back at the lodge, we got news from hawk-eyed Pedro that neither the usual Crested Owl or “reliable” roosting Rufous Potoos were reliable anymore, and were absent from their usual sleeping abodes. A plan was hatched to try to see the potoo by night, usually a much more challenging feat to achieve. However, the late afternoon brought us one of the highlights of the entire day (even with a Harpy involved, yes!); when a pair of dueling male Fiery Topaz hummingbirds were watched from the lodge cabins at length, as they danced and swirled in the shadows, gleaming iridescent crimson and jade in doing so. Gerold could not have put it better, and so I will quote him “This MUST be one of the best birds in the World”, and after seeing them like this, I am in no position to disagree: exquisite, simply stunning, and my best looks ever. There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language for this species in the right light conditions.  Photos, however, were prevented by the dark conditions of the regular perches of these rare forest hummingbirds.

You would think this was enough for one day, but the night held more, and so into the Heart of Darkness we went once more. By the evening, I was on my last legs, having had a sleepless night getting into the Amazon through the night, combined with the arduous hike, I was truly spent. But, birds have a way of injecting energy into me that comes out of little else, (rather like following a full and substantial meal, there is always a sliver left in you for an irresistible desert to squeeze inside). We could tell that Rufous Potoo was niggling Pedro, as he prided himself on finding this for every single birding group that visits Gareno during the daytime, which he, (until then) held a 100% record with. We set off just prior to full darkness, and entered the forest interior once more after darkness had fallen, with Pedro displaying that particular focus that comes with birding your own special patch of birding land. Soon after the potoo call was played a distant reply came back to us, but it gave no inclination of coming in any closer, and remained frustratingly down slope from us, and the incline was considerable. Pedro, with his trademark cowboy boots (apparently dating back to a past fashion decades ago in the Amazon), stepped downhill like it was nothing, and soon after announced he had the bird! We slipped, slided, and cursed our way down to him, and stared right into the eyes of a Rufous Potoo standing sentry on a dead snag in the forest understorey, which remained there until we left some time later.
Supper was calling, and soon we ate and headed for retirement, after a long, exciting, yet punishing day. However, the night chorus held a bird’s voice within it that peaked my interest: Nocturnal Curassow, one of the Amazon’s true wraiths. Its deep sounds can be readily heard at certain chosen locales only, although even there catching sight of this species has always been something of a contest, comparable to birding Olympics. However, I had one important weapon on my side, Jose Illanes, an Amazonian with a legendary ability to see something out of nothing, by night or day, (and perhaps even blindfolded!) The bird did indeed, prove a considerable battle to find, drawing us well inside the forest, with no trail in sight, and onto yet another precipitous slope, and that is where Jose found a window into the canopy of the trees, and spotted the rufous form of a Nocturnal Curassow sitting quietly above us. A magical end to a day that only the Amazon can provide, and in the company of some truly great Amazonians!

(I apologize for the extremely poor quality of the photo of the curassow, but merely seeing this bird was incredible, and I needed to post the photo to make myself believe that I actually did see one!)

More to come from the Amazon soon. Our Adventure did not end there, far from it…

eBird lists: 
eBird List 1 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017
eBird List 2 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017