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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Paz de las Aves - Jewel of the Cloud Forest

Crimson-rumped Toucanet
(Aulacorhynchus haematopygus)

Paz de las Aves is a small private reserve located well off the beaten path but one of the most popular in northwest Ecuador. I would just like to add some personal comments to the article that I wrote for HubPages, which you can read here.

The small farm of Angel Paz is not an easy location to find and the 5:30 AM arrive time requirement can be rather daunting, but the ability to observe species that are endangered or seldom spotted is well worth the effort. Giant, Yellow-breasted and Mustached Antpitta, among other obscure birds of the cloud forest understory, make a visit to this simple farmland a twitcher’s dream.

My first visit to Paz de las Aves was with a friend several years ago. Our primary interest was the Cock-of-the-Rock lek where we were told a view of these exotic birds was almost guaranteed. It was a little difficult driving my sedan along the 4 km. stretch of dirt road to get to the reserve but we arrived without mishap. There was another group of birders at the entrance preparing for the trek through the forest so they could arrive at the hide before dawn.

Maria: Giant Antpitta
(Grallaria gigantea)
When we arrived at the desired location we were in for a disappointment. Not a squawk or grunt could be heard from the amorous males. We had come on one of the few days out of the year that they all appeared to have secured a date with a mate. Our disenchantment was short lived, however, when this bulbous, brick colored bird came hopping down the trail to meet us. Angel introduced us to Maria, a Giant Antpitta that he had trained to come out in the open for morsels of worm. She would come quite close, within 4 to 5 meters, and pose for photos. The sight of this endangered species helped us forget about our previous quarry, instead concentrating on admiring this beauty of nature. We saw several other rarities during our morning adventure and spent a wonderful time conversing with the other travelers over breakfast. It was a good day with new ticks added to our lists and friends appended to our email register.

My most recent visit to Paz de las Aves brought some new revelations. The Cock-of-the-Rock were very active that morning, much to the delight of the young lady I was guiding. Maria had not been seen in several months but there was another Giant Antpitta that came for the spoils. Angel had built a new fruit feeder, the original being abandoned because the Sickle-winged Guans had taken it over. The road into the property was a little easier to drive, although it will probably never be paved. (I much prefer it that way)

On this visit I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with Angel and his brother Rodrigo who is now helping with the groups. Neither of them speaks English so I interpreted for my companion. Angel had just secured a loan with the bank so that he could build a lodge on the property to accommodate visitors. He sounded a little apprehensive about this endeavor but I understand that this is a big step for a former farmer/new conservationist. I am sure that with the encouragement of his family and friends that this will be a success.

Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager
(Anisognathus notabilis)
The best part of my visit with the brothers Paz was when we talked about the birds on the reserve. Angel’s demeanor changed from that of an apprentice businessman to the gentle manner of a father. When he talked about the Antpittas it was as though he was bragging on his children. There is such a close connection between him and his wards that one can almost hear a tear in his voice. I saw this also when we were out on the trails; the way he protected his charges from too close encroachment from the less sensitive visitors. It is this empathy that he has with his environment that draws me back.

I recommend a visit to Paz de las Aves for any birder who wishes to observe nature at its finest. But I also advocate watching Angel and his brother as they lead you around the reserve. You may not understand the words that he speaks, but you can definitely feel his heart as he expounds on the virtues of his children. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Yellow House Trails - Hacienda San Vicente

I have been very busy lately and haven’t had much time for writing so I have gotten behind on my blog updates. I hope to remedy that over the next few weeks.

I just completed an article on Yellow House Trails (Hacienda San Vicente) in Mindo Ecuador. In that article I concentrated on describing how to reach the area and the birding trails available. I try not to promote any particular lodge in my articles as they are more for general information, but here I can express my personal opinion.

Yellow House has become my place to stay when in the Mindo area. The rooms are very spacious and inexpensive and you cannot beat the Garzon family for hospitality and friendliness. I recommend it to everyone who asks me for a place to stay in the area and I have never heard a complaint about the accommodations or the birding opportunities.  I know of no other place that can be beaten for price and comfort.

Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis)
The few articles that I have seen concerning the Yellow House trails state that they see more birds on the walk up to the main primary forest than they do once entering. To some extent I can agree with them but I have to explain why I believe this to be the case. You can, on average, see over 50 species of birds around the lodge itself on a daily basis. There are several Squirrel Cuckoos that visit the trees in the early morning and there are also Rufous Motmot on a regular basis. Many people spend time observing these beautiful species before setting out on the 20-minute walk up to the forest.

The problem is that the hike up the hill has such an abundance of birds that the 20 minutes turns into an hour or more. By the time most visitors get to the main trail it has become late morning and the activity has slowed down considerably. You also have the fact that more species are observed at the forest borders than in the dense foliage. However, if you take the time to search the understory you can be rewarded with some great discoveries.

There is a Cock-of-the-Rock lek on the reserve but this requires an early morning start time and a walk through the darkness to get there at the proper moment. If you have to have breakfast before starting your day then this is easily remedied. If you mention this to Maria Elena the night before she will prepare you a bag breakfast to take with you and will set it out on the porch for you to carry along.
Be prepared for biting insects, whether at Yellow House or any other area of Mindo. The mosquitoes are not as much of a pest as the no-see-ums. The itch from their bite can last a week or more. I suggest long pants (no shorts) and long sleeve shirts in addition to some form of insect repellent.

Buff-tailed Coronet (Boissonneaua jardini)
The charge for taking the trails is minimal if you do not stay at the lodge, and access to the reserve is included in the price of lodging if you do spend the night. I find that this is a great place to set up a base when birding the Mindo-Nambillo Protected Forest. When I return to my room at night I still have the opportunity to see various species from the porch or go out in the evenings in search of owls or the Common Potoo that frequents the area around the main house.

If you can speak a little Spanish I recommend spending a little time talking with Maria Elena, her sister Inez and her mother Carlotta. They are wonderful people and will make you feel like one of the family. Even if you don’t speak Spanish you will still enjoy sitting with them and smiling. They serve breakfast in their home and this is a great way to start your day. They grow fruit on the property and they serve fresh fruit juice any time of the day. Sit down, savor the sweet nectar and enjoy a wonderful time in the rainforest. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Birding Quito Ecuador

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

The city of Quito Ecuador is a sprawling mass of people, buildings and traffic. It is a starting point for many vacations and birding adventures but never the focus. However, most travelers have at least one free day before starting their primary objective and are not sure what to do during this time. I have been asked on many occasions if there are parks or reserves that can easily be reached for a quick day of birding. For this purpose I am writing this article.

When we live in an area for several years we have a tendency to become oblivious to the wonderful avifauna surrounding us. However, we fail to realize that for those who are visiting for the first time, these birds that we consider commonplace are a boon to the uninitiated.

When walking the streets of Quito there are a number of species that you are guaranteed to encounter. Rufous-collared Sparrows, Great Thrush, and Eared Doves are everywhere. There are, nonetheless, some birds that are a little less commonplace in their appearance yet easily observed while touring the city. Sparkling Violetear and Black-tailed Trainbearer are frequently encountered in the downtown areas and are not extremely shy when foraging for food.

Sparkling Violetear
(Colibri coruscans)
There are a couple of parks that are easily reached by taxi and offer a greater abundance of opportunities to observe many species. The Botanical Gardens that is located in the center of the city at Carolina Park is a haven for many birds and some migrants as well. The Tennessee Warbler makes a regular visit during its migration period. Other birds that may be encountered are Southern-yellow Grosbeak, Cinerious Conebill and American Kestrel.

Metropolitan Park is along the eastern ridge of the city and harbors many species in its vast wooded area. Rusty Flowerpiercer, Tufted Tit-tyrant, Hooded Siskin, Yellow-bellied Seedeater and Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers frequent the area and provide for an enjoyable day of birding.

When touring the city or outlying areas be on the lookout for some unusual birds that may be passing through. I once observed a Great Egret perched high in a tree next to one of the large malls in Valley de los Chillos. There are a couple of reservoirs in the city and it may have been stopping there on its way to more productive habitat. I saw it the following day as well flying across the valley.

Quito has much to offer in the areas of architecture, culture and entertainment but do not rule out the abundance of avifauna that are available for the viewer. With a little patience and observation you can start your birding adventure early and record some new lifers.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Visiting Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary

Masked Tityra (Tityra semifasciata)

Over the past month I have made a couple of trips to Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary. (Follow link for specific details on the reserve.) It is not a place I normally try to tackle on a day trip from Quito but it can be done. One of its strong points is its canopy tower allowing for a more comfortable view of birds that inhabit the canopy and understory. Due to the deforestation of the surrounding area the reserve encounters many flocks and wanderers looking for a place to rest.

Aside from the viewing advantage of the tower, it is a great place to meet people who share the same interest. On my first visit to Rio Silanche this past month I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Jean Paul Perret, founder of Neotropical Birding Tours based in Peru. He was spending some time in Ecuador, scouting the various birding areas. We had several hours to photograph and discuss the various bird species visiting the trees surrounding the tower that morning.

Bronze-winged Parrot
(Pionus chalcopterus)
It was a great morning for birding as there were several flocks passing through during our stay. Chocó Toucans were quite prevalent and the eye level vantage point made for some great photos. Of course, where there are Chocós, you will also find the Pale-mandibled Aracari. (Also called the Collared or Stripe-billed Aracari). A small group of Bronze-winged Parrots perched near the tower and a male White-tailed Trogon paid us a visit and stuck around for a few pics.

One of the highlights of the morning was an extended visit by a White-necked Puffbird. It perched in a nearly bare tree a short distance from the tower. It was an impressive sight as it sat proudly on the limb perusing the countryside. We could hear some White-bearded Manakins clacking away in the forest below but they never showed themselves. All in all it was productive morning and especially so because I met a new friend in Jean Paul.

My second visit to the tower was with Pearl Jordan, the young lady who came on a mission of seeing 8,000 birds by her 80th birthday. (You can read the full account of her trip here.) We arrived early in hopes of seeing some new lifers for her. Along with the species that I had encountered on my previous visit we were able to see the Masked Tityra and the Rufous-winged Tanager. (I saw the Bay-headed Tanager, which is more common, on the first trip.) Unfortunately we had to cut our time in the tower short because it was a clear day and the intense heat of the sun was making our stay unbearable.

We took the main trail around the property in search of the Brown Wood-Rail. We heard one clamoring in the forest near the creek but were unable to get it to show itself. We did, however, encounter the Purple-chested Hummingbird, a Chocó endemic and not very common. Since this was one of Pearl’s target birds it made for a productive day.

Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, a property of the Mindo Cloud Forest foundation, is a great place for the visiting bird fancier. It canopy tower lends itself to wonderful views of many species and a great place to meet new friends. I would recommend adding it to any northwest Ecuador birding adventure.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Days 9 and 10 of the NW Ecuador Birding Adventure

Plain Xenops

We had left some flexibility in our schedule so that we might be able to backtrack a little to pick up some of the birds we had missed. With this in mind we returned to Milpe Bird Sanctuary before our journey to Quito. The Yellow-collared Chlorophonia had been spotted there 2 weeks earlier and we were hoping we would have a second chance at seeing it.

Plumbeous Sierra-Finch
Furnariids were quite active that morning with Woodcreepers, Foliage-gleaners and Xenops in abundance. Motmots and Quetzals were calling from various trees filling the morning with squawks and grunts. We were disappointed by the Chlorophonia but did locate a couple of other species on Pearl’s list. Since the sun was warming the day the bird activity was dropping off and we decided to head to Quito.

While making the return trip to the capital city we discussed our tactics for the last day. There were a few high-altitude birds left on the list so we thought that Cotopaxi might be a good bet for their discovery.

Early Friday morning we headed for the park with high hopes of finding a couple more targets. It was an overcast morning but at the time there was no rain so we hoped for the best. Upon approaching Lake Limpiopungo we encounter several Carunculated Caracara foraging for food along the paramo tundra. Recent rains had caused the lake to flood and the parking area was inundated with water. We were able to secure a dry location to park with access to the trail.
Carunculated Caracara

Andean Gulls, Coots and Lapwing were in abundance as usual but other than that the bird activity was lower than expected. Not even the Tawny Antpitta could be heard amongst the paramo grasses. This may have been due to the excessive rains that the sierra had been experiences. Undaunted we walked the lake trail in search of our quarry. We had glimpses of the Ecuadorian Hillstar as it fed on some of the high-altitude flora. Brown-backed Chat-tyrant, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and Plain-colored Seedeaters all showed their presence. We were able to see the Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet for a brief moment, which added to Pearl’s target list. Around 11:00 AM a light misty rain began and we returned to the car to call it a day.

In summary we had a good ten days of birding. Of the 46 species on Pearl’s list we were able to encounter 22 birds. Since we were concentrating on her targets rather than on bird count we did not spend time at feeders in the various reserves. We were also rather lax at recording species other than those that were our quarry. However, at the end of each day we would write down the birds that we recalled encountering. That list included over 175 species in all, some of them rare or uncommon. Pearl was happy with our accomplishments for the trip and we are in the process of planning her next excursion to the Amazon basin in search of other difficult birds. Meanwhile she will be taking her next trip on a Russian ship to Spitzbergen. We wish her luck in her adventures and know that we will see her again soon. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Day 7 and 8

Black-throated Trogon

We continued our search of the northwest by visiting Mangaloma Reserve. This is a 200 ha (500 ac) forest located 7 km off the main highway north of Pedro Vicente Maldanado. Reservations are required prior to entry but it is worth the effort. Making a right hand turn a little south of Km 104 (there is a sign designating the reserve) you travel along dirt roads until you get to the main gate. After ringing a bell for entry the caretaker will come out to open the gate.

Mangaloma is a great place to find some difficult species such as the Orange-fronted Barbet, Rufous-crowned Antpitta, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, and the Banded-ground Cuckoo. Only one of these birds was on Pearl’s list but in addition to the Orange-fronted Barbet we encountered the Plumbeous Forest-Falcon. Another great sighting was the Black-throated Trogon.

If making a trip to Mangaloma Reserve, good boots are a must. Trails are quite muddy but passable. There are two side trails in addition to the main path. They recently opened a new route leading to additional areas of the property.

On the 8th day we went to Rio Silanche, about 20 km further west. This reserve is part of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation and a 3 day pass can be acquired at any of their four bird sanctuaries, which includes Milpe Bird Sanctuary, Milpe Gardens, Rio Silanche and their newest reserve near the Bellavista lodge. This pass provides entry to any and all of these locations.

Rufous-winged Tanager
There is a canopy tower a short distance from the entrance at Rio Silanche that provides a great place to view birds at their level. White-tailed Trogon, Lineated Woodpeckers and Choco Toucans were abundant this day. However, the Rufous-winged Tanager was probably the highlight of the morning. Although “The Birds of Ecuador” by Ridgely and Greenfield indicate that the Rufous-winged and the Bay-headed Tanagers have never been found together in Ecuador, I now have photographic proof that they do, as I was able to capture them both with a camera at Rio Silanche.

After spending most of the morning in the tower, we decided to walk the property to see what else may be present. We heard a Brown Wood-rail when we approached the creek but were unable to coax it into the open for a good look. We did run across a flock of Bronze-winged Parrots feeding about 2 meters above the ground in some small trees but they were too embedded in the growth to get any decent photos. The sun came out with a vengeance and the heat was overwhelming for us and the birds, as activity dropped off quickly. By the end of the day we had brought Pearls hit-list to 18 species. The next two days would be spent searching for some of the more illusive birds on the list. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day 5 and 6

Collared Trogo

There was no Internet available the last few days so I have to cover a lot of ground.

On day 5 we went on up to Bellavista Lodge to see if we could add anything to Pearl’s list. After talking to several people at the reserve we weren’t given much encouragement but we led to believe that there was a possibility of seeing the White-faced Nunbird along the Research Station road. Not to be discouraged we parked along the road and began walking. After playing some birdsong we began to get a response. 

Although the Nunbird continued to answer it would never show itself. After about an hour of unrewarding communication we decided that our efforts were futile and returned to the car. Pearl was a distance behind me and I decided to call on more time. A Nunbird answered directly in front of her and she waited patiently to see what might transpire. She was rewarded when the White-faced Nunbird appeared briefly and then slipped quietly back into cover.

Club-winged Manakin
After this small victory we decided to head down past Tandayapa and see what birds we might encounter. Along the route we saw several species including a Barred Hawk. Collared Trogon, Rufus Motmot and Red-billed Parrot were some of the other finds for the day. The afternoon rains came in and we spent the afternoon recounting our day’s work.

Day 6 was spent at Milpe Bird Sanctuary. The Club-winged Manakins were very active as usual, as were the Rufous Motmot. This was another damp morning with misty rain creating a slippery environment. We were particularly interested in the Yellow-collared Clorophonia that had been observed there within the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately they did not show as we spent the day observing Toucan Barbets, Crimson-rumped Toucanets and Masked Trogon. By the end of the day Pearl’s total target birds were at 11 and we had several days left to search. I will continue tomorrow, filling in the gaps and the rare finds at Mangaloma and Rio Silanche.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Day 3 and 4 of the 10-day Adventure

We started the third day off early in the morning on a slow trip from Quito to Mindo via the Old Nono-Tandayapa road. We stopped often to check out bird sightings and bird sound. The high point of the morning was seeing a Black-and-Chestnut Eagle perched in a tree across a ravine. It remained there for several minutes before flying off to other surroundings. It is not often seen in the wild and when encountered it is generally observed flying low over the canopy. A perched bird is an unusual sight that allowed us to enjoy an unexpected moment.

We continued down the mountain and came across a large flock of Band-tailed Pigeons perched in some tall trees. There were about 40 birds in all. After a few minutes they took flight putting on an areal display as they departed.

As we continued down towards Mindo we observed many species of tanagers and flycatchers. The morning had intermittent light rain, which had little affect on our birding opportunities. We arrived in Mindo a little after noon and went on to The Yellow House, which would be our base for the next few days. We were told that a tornado had come through town a couple days earlier and that some of the trails were blocked due to fallen trees. We decided to have lunch and then determine our next course of action.

While dining at a small restaurant in town it began raining. By the time we returned to our lodging the rain had become steady and we decided not to tackle the trails but would review the birds we had observed that day. While sitting on the porch of the cabins we were able to see several other species within the reserve.

On day 4 we went out on the trails at Yellow House. There was a light rain but nothing that would dampen our spirits. Leaving our cabins we encountered a Squirrel Cuckoo and a Rufous Motmot in the trees near the lodge. After a few photos we headed up the hill towards the trails.

On the way up the hill we spotted a large raptor in one of the trees. It flew closer to give us a better look and we were able to identify it as a Hook-billed Kite. I took some decent photos of it perched on top a dead tree before it flew off to more productive territory.

The Cock-of-the-Rock was quite prevalent as we spotted several as we walked the main trail. Only the #1 secondary trail was open due to the tornado damage, which was quite extensive through the reserve. Many trees were felled and a major cleanup was needed to bring all the trails back into use. This did not, however, daunt us from seeking out our prey.

We saw many furnariids and flycatchers along the trails and keeping up with the different species was difficult at times. We had been told that we could only travel as far as the creek and with a little effort we pushed on. However the tornado destruction prevented us from continuingwe turned back to the lodge and a hearty lunch.

Our first two-day bird count was at 54 species. The second two days we racked up another 58 species. Pearl has recorded 9 of her 46 target birds so we feel that is not a bad start to the trip. Tomorrow we will be off to Bellavista Reserve and high hopes a few more additions to the list.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Day 2 -Yanacocha

Turquoise Jay

The second day of this trip, a visit to Yanacocha, began with beautiful weather but by late morning the clouds had moved in and rain threatened. We were not as successful in filling in Pearl’s list but we were able to chalk up one more. We had hoped on possibly seeing the Black-breasted Puffleg but it has not yet moved into the area. I will return in about a week and check on a regular basis to see if this allusive little bird will make an appearance.

Barred Fruiteater
Although we were not able to do much with the target list, it was a good day for birding. Scarlet-bellied and Hooded Mountain Tanagers were active as were the Black, Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers. There were several mixed flocks of Spectacled Whitestart and Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch.

The hummingbird feeders were not exceptionally busy but there was a good showing by many species. Gold-breasted, Glowing and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs were all present. Tyrian Metaltail, Buff-winged Starfrontlet and Mountain Velvet-breast were fighting it out over the feeders and the territory. My favorites, the Sword-billed Hummingbird and Great Sapphirewing, made a showing and kept us entertained for several minutes.

Hooded Mountain Tanager
One very interesting sighting was a small flock of Powerful Woodpeckers as they flew through the area. They were making quite a ruckus while they moved from tree to tree, chattering and squawking. They are a magnificent bird, large and colorful.

Although the rain put an early damper on our day, we were able to observe some beautiful species. Tomorrow we will take a slow drive down the old Nono-Tandayapa road. Hopefully I will have internet access and will be able to continue this commentary as we seek out some special birds. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ten-Day Birding Adventure

Today I began a ten-day trip through NW Ecuador guiding a woman from Colorado who is looking for the more obscure birds of the region. Her name is Pearl Jordan and her goal is to have 8,000 birds on her list by her 80th birthday. She needs about 300 more species to accomplish this task and only two years to finish.

We started by going to Guango Lodge in search of some new lifers for her. It was raining all morning, which made it difficult to accomplish this task. However, we were able to add a few to her list. The first one came quickly when a Mountain Avocetbill made an early morning appearance at the feeders. We were off to a good start.

The rain continued but we did not want to give up so we made a quick trip down path leading passed the lodge. Here we encountered a Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch. Since Pearl’s list only included about 10 birds in the higher altitudes we were off to a good start.

Since it was getting late we decided to go up the Termas de Papallacta and have some lunch. While there we thought we might try our luck at one of the trails that paralleled the river. It was getting late and we figured that the birds might be making their late afternoon snack runs. The trip paid off as we saw a White-browed Spinetail and a Flammulated Treehunter along the trail. Not bad for the first day.

In all we spotted about 30 species of birds and were able to make a small dent in her list.

Tomorrow we are off to Yanacocha. Will keep you posted on our progress. I have not downloaded any photos yet but will post them when I do.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mindo Tropical Rainforest Adventure

Mindo Rainforest

Most people who visit this blog will think of one thing when the town of Mindo Ecuador is mentioned: birding the tropical rainforest.  Located within the Tumbez-Chocó-Darién bioregion, it has one of the richest avifauna diversities in the world. A targeted must-see location for birdwatchers around the globe, Mindo has become known for its easy access and nearly unlimited opportunities to add to one’s sighting list. It is truly a birders paradise.

However, when going on vacation with the family, it often happens that not all members of the unit are equally enthusiastic about the prospect of tramping around the tropical rainforest in search of the Giant Antpitta. In deference to those non-birders within the group I am dedicating this particular article.
Traveling in Style
It was my pleasure over the last four days to take some friends from England on a Rainforest Adventure. Nigel Mallon, a dentist from Sheffield, arrived in Quito Ecuador along with three dental students to participate in a clinic that was taking place in the southern part of the city. This weeklong event ended on Sunday as the majority of the team returned to the United States. Nigel, Emilie Abraham, Ali Day and Zan Johar stayed behind to take advantage of few extra days of R&R. I accompanied them on their little adventure into the tropical rainforest.

On Sunday, after the bulk of the team had shuttled to the airport, I met the young thrill-seekers and brought them to my home to drop of their extra baggage. About 8:45 AM we were ready to hit the road and tackle the unknown. As we traveled out past Pululahua volcano north of Quito, there was a hushed excitement. Though weary from their previous weeks work, the team was anxious to adventure into this new uncharted territory.

About an hour and a half into our journey we stopped in Nanegalito for a late breakfast and an opportunity to stretch our legs. A small roadside restaurant provided everything we needed to start this new adventure. Coffee, tea, empanadas and bolas (a fried ball of cornmeal and cheese) were the morning’s fare and set the mood for the trip. A good meal and a few photos later we were on our way.
We arrived in Mindo at around 11:30 AM and went on to our cabins. We stayed at La Estancia, one of many hosterias providing comfortable yet inexpensive accommodations in this small rustic town. At $15 per night, which included breakfast, this small oasis fit right in with a student budget. The cabin had two bedrooms and a private bath. There was a small porch off the back overlooking a mountain stream. Two hammocks strung across the deck made a comfortable area to listen to the water and watch birds and butterflies flitting through the trees.

After storing our baggage we decided to walk on down to the butterfly forest, about a mile from the lodge. Although this group did not consist of avid birders, I had instilled in them a curiosity for species that are not encountered in Europe such as hummingbirds and tanagers. Of course, there was a distinct interest in seeing rainforest species such as toucans. This desire was fulfilled as a Choco Toucan flew across the road during our hike. It landed in a tree near the Mindo River and gave the team an opportunity to view it at a distance.

When we arrived at the butterfly forest we were disappointed to be told that, due to the overcast skies of the day, the butterflies were not active. But this did not deter this group of adventurers from enjoying the activity at the hummingbird feeders. There were about ten different species represented including the White-whiskered Hermit, Green Thorntail, and White-Necked Jacobin. Emilie and Ali had their photos taken with Bruno, the giant gray Mastiff that resides on the property. After about an hour of being entertained by the hummingbirds we walked back to the cabin.

On Monday the team had their sights set on ziplining across the gorges of the Mindo valley. It was a beautiful morning and the air was filled with excitement. A pickup took us to the starting point and we were introduced to our guides: Junior, Hernan and Leonardo. After being fitted with our harness and receiving a brief safety lecture we were off to the skies. Our first challenge was a 300m (984 ft) trip across a valley at a height of about 100m (330 ft).  It provided a beautiful view of the tropical rainforest, a view that would normally only be enjoyed by the exotic birds of the region. The harness gave one a feeling of security while zipping across the magnificent landscape.

This was the first of 13 ziplines ranging in distances from 75 – 400 m (246 – 1300 ft) that we would encounter on the adventure. However, for the more daring in the group there was no end of the excitement. On a number of traverses the team was given the option of modifying their traveling position. The “Superman” allowed the daredevil to assume the stance of this flying crusader, body parallel with the ground and arms outstretched in the true super-hero posture. For the ultimate thrill-seeker there was the “Butterfly”, an inverted cross stance with the head dangling precariously over the precipice. This was very disorienting as the traveler sped across the chasm. All in all it was a very exhilarating experience and highly enjoyed by all participants.

As I write this I find that the description is becoming quite lengthy so I have decided to divide it into two parts. There was so much more that we encountered on this 3-night experience and much more that we did not have time for. Stay tuned for the next installment. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yanacocha Reserve in February

Tawny Antpitta (Grallaria quitensis)

I have gotten behind on my blog updates as I have been quite busy the past couple of weeks. I will try to rectify this over the next few days since I have made several trips to Yanacocha, Parque Jerusalem, Cotopaxi and Guango Lodge. As I said, I have been busy.

I will start with Yanacocha since I have been there three times since my last post. I was privileged to travel there on each occasion with some new friends. Graham Osborne from England accompanied me on my first trip, Klaus Emmaneel from Victoria BC on my second and William Donaldson of the US on the last. Although unusual for this time of year, we had good weather for each visit.

There is not as much tanager activity at this time since there is not as much fruit available. Most trees are in bloom. However, we did encounter the Grass-green Tanager. It is quite common at lower altitudes but not seen much at Yanacocha so this was a pleasant surprise. There were also several Barred Fruiteaters active along the paths and near the hummingbird feeders near the tunnel.

A couple mixed flocks were encountered consisting of Spectacled Whitestart, Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers. A small group of Hooded Mountain-Tanagers were also spotted as they passed through the area. The Bar-bellied Woodpecker was seen on one occasion and the Crimson-mantled Woodpecker was also present. Rufous Wren and Rufous Spinetail were quite active although their constant movement made it difficult to get a good view. A Smokey Bush-tyrant was also observed within one of these flocks.

Great Sapphirewing (Pterophanes cyanopterus)
The hummingbird feeders were abuzz with activity as usual. Sword-billed Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Mountain Velvetbreast, Golden and Sapphire-vented Puffleg, and Tyrian Metaltail were all present. It is still too early for any sightings of the Black-breasted Puffleg but the time is approaching when that is a possibility. The Blue-backed Conebill has also been regularly seen near the feeders although not participating in the nectar frenzy.

When we returned to the ranger station it was interesting to find that the workers have followed the lead of Angel Paz by putting up a small hide to attract the Tawny Antpitta. About 50 yards from the guard shack one can make a few whistles and a couple of these illusive birds will come in to see if there are any worm morsels to be had.  Although the hide is there to provide a little more cover from the birds, the Antpittas have overcome their fear and will jump right up onto the walls of the hide in search of food. It used to be that getting within fifty feet of this bird was unusual. Now you can see them at arms length.

All three trips to Yanacocha were successful, seeing about 20 to 25 species before the clouds came in and obscured our vision. I will be on the lookout for the Black-breasted Puffleg as their time approaches. Meanwhile I will be busy trying to get caught up on my blog updates.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Machalilla - Hidden Treasure of the Pacific Coast

Isla de la Plata

Ecuador has long been known for its biodiversity and has become an important destination for the avid naturalist.  However, the lure of exotic locations, such as Mindo and the Amazon Basin, has concealed many of the significant animal sanctuaries of this tiny nation. Machalilla National Park is one of these hidden jewels providing refuge for the extensive variety of flora and fauna of the Pacific Coast.


Concern for the decline in natural forest along the Pacific Coast due to agricultural development prompted the Ecuadorian government to pass a decree in July of 1979 to establish Machalilla as a protected area. Approximately 56,000 ha (138,000 ac) of land was classified as part of the Machalilla National Park including several islands such as Isla de la Plata, an expanse of beach and coastline, and various forest regions encompassing dry, cloud and rain forest habitats. The reserve was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1998, providing it recognition as an important wildlife environment and giving it world protective status. In 2005, BirdLife International designated the park as an Important Bird Area due to the vulnerability of over thirty species of birds residing within the region.


Parque National Machalilla is located in the southeastern province of Manabi. The area is easily accessible by air or ground transportation. There is a regional airport in the city of Manta, a few kilometers north of the park. From this point it is a short drive by taxi or bus to the many towns and villages that surround the park. Puerto Lopez is one of the larger and more convenient of these locations, offering numerous hostels and hosterias for visitors.

Ground transportation from Quito or Guayaquil is available at very reasonable prices. There are direct and regularly scheduled busses that visit the major locations surrounding the park. It should be noted that although this is an economical means of travel, it might require many hours to traverse the country.

Although travel to the islands such as Isla de la Plata is restricted, regular excursions are available transporting visitors to these popular destinations. Once on the isles there are guided tours indicating the highlights of the area including the diverse flora and fauna.

Flora and Fauna

Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
Machalilla National Park is an extremely biodiverse area and many species within the region are considered vulnerable. In addition to the jaguar and the ocelot, there are two species of monkeys, the Mantled Howler and the White-headed Capuchin, that inhabit the denser forest areas. Brocket and White-tailed Deer, which were once abundant, have been hunted to near extinction. The reserve is home to the remaining one percent of the previous scrub desert and forest of western Ecuador. Humpbacked Whales regularly visit offshore, drawing researchers and marine biologists to monitor their movements.

There are more than 270 species of birds within the reserve, many of them identified by BirdLife International as vulnerable. The Grey-backed Hawk, Grey-cheeked Parakeet, Esmeraldas Woodstar, Slaty Becard, and Blackish-headed Spinetail are considered endangered. Traveling offshore to Isla de la Plata, commonly called the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, visitors can observe three species of Boobies as well as Tropicbirds and Frigatebirds. This island is also home to the only nesting group of Waved Albatross outside of the Galapagos Archipelago.

Accommodations and Attractions
Although Machalilla is off the beaten path, it is well worth the traveler’s efforts to pay a visit to this magnificent park along the Pacific coast. Whether a serious bird-watcher or a casual vacationer, there are activities that will meet the desires of everyone. A visit to this tropical paradise will delight everyone and provide memories for a lifetime. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Exploring the Tropical Rainforest of Ecuador

Tropical Rainforest

The tropical rainforest, for many, is a wonderland of exotic animals, brightly adorned birds, towering trees and unfathomable mystery. It is a place that is frequently dreamt about but seldom visited. Movies, such as “Avatar” and “Predator”, espouse its beauty while subtly alluding to its imperceptible dangers. It is a refuge of fantasy and a nightmare of uncertainty. The tropical rainforest is a destination of adventure and discovery. Ecuador is at the heart of this adventure and is ripe for exploration.


The tropical rainforest can be found within a narrow band that circumvents the earth between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5o N latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5o S latitude). This region corresponds with the tilt of the earth, marking the winter and summer solstices. Twice a year every point within this sector will experience the direct rays of the sun. Ecuador is at the very center of this region, straddling the equator from which it takes its name.

Although the tropical rainforest occupies less than six percent of the world’s land surface, eighty percent of the earth’s biodiversity can be found within its boundaries. Rains in excess of 125 cm (50 in) per year and the protective covering of the forest canopy provide a terrarium like atmosphere conducive of plant and animal survival.

In addition to the rainforest, Ecuador boasts a tropical cloud forest where moistures is not attained from torrential rains but by extracting it from the prevalent mantel of vapor that envelops the area. Of Ecuador’s total landmass, forty percent can be designated as tropical rainforest, of which forty-four percent is protected for conservation of biodiversity.

The forest environment can be divided into four distinct layers. The uppermost or emergent level includes trees that extend from 40 – 80 m (130 – 260 ft) in height. These behemoths tower above the canopy and must be resistant to high winds and the direct rays of the scorching sun. Eagles and other birds of prey, bats, butterflies and some monkeys find refuge among the branches of these giants of nature.

Below these lofty titans lies the canopy that forms a protective envelope for the flora and fauna of the woodland below. Blocking ninety-nine percent of the solar radiation, it is a labyrinth of foliage, vines and branches providing sustenance and security for a myriad of birds, of which there are over 1,600 species, snakes and amphibians that call it home.

Beneath the shield of the canopy plants exhibit oversized leaves that are mandatory to absorb the restricted light penetrating the dense foliage. Insects are bountiful and the humidity reaches its zenith. This region is referred to as the understory, where large cats such as jaguars and leopards roam the jungle floor, along with tapirs, peccaries and other large rodents. Tree frogs sing in melodious harmony, some of the 447 amphibian species within Ecuador, 163 considered endangered and 159 found exclusively within this tiny nation.

Crimson-rumped Toucanet
The final level is the forest floor or shrub layer where little vegetation can survive the lack of sunshine. Organic material decomposes rapidly in this region providing nourishment for the sparse survivors. Giant Anteaters, large rodents, quaint foraging birds and mammals inhabit this uninviting environment.


When traveling to the tropical rainforest of Ecuador, arriving in the target country is the easiest part of the journey. From this point it must be decided how to reach the destination quickly and safely. Ecuador has an abundance of ground options that are both secure and reliable. The road system is modern and well maintained, thus facilitating travel alone or in small groups. For those who are less adventurous, the traveler may acquire the assistance of guides or tour agencies to insure one’s safety and expediency. Internet research should be utilized in advance of travel, scrutinizing the intended areas along with their ground transportation options and employing the most advantageous means of reaching the final destination.
Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

An additional item that requires thorough research before setting out on a trek to the tropical rainforest is lodging. While there are many lodges and reserves offering eco-packages, other options may be available, especially to the frugal traveler. Small towns located near or possibly within the boundaries of the forest could offer less expensive accommodation while affording access to these target areas. Some locations permit camping, providing a more intimate contact with the environment.


As was mentioned earlier, the tropical rainforest is home to eighty percent of the world’s animal population. It is therefore advisable to take precautions when entering this possibly hostile environment. A few preventative measures can help avoid uncomfortable or dangerous situations while ensuring a more enjoyable visit to these areas of unparalleled beauty.

  • Never Travel Alone – Although there is an inherent desire to be one with nature, it is never advisable to travel alone in areas where nature may wish to make the visitor too much a part of the environment. Even on small reserves where it appears safe, a habitué is recommended to at least inform someone where they will be and when they will return. A slight misstep could result in a mishap with no one to provide assistance.
  • Insects – Due to the tropical environment of the rainforest, flying, crawling, and jumping creatures abound. Although many may be harmless, traveling in jungle areas below 1,500 m (5,000 ft) increases the possibility of encountering disease-bearing insects. An Internet search of the target areas will reveal any health risks that have been identified for the location and the precautionary measures that should be employed.
  • Animals – Many of the creatures roaming the dense foliage of the wilderness are beautiful and quite harmless. However, there are many animals that require cautious consideration. Certain beasts such as bears, monkeys and large cats are obviously menacing but the smaller inhabitants such as snakes, lizards and frogs can prove to be innocent looking yet formidable foes. Proper clothing and precautionary measures can prove to be an effective deterrent to aggressive jungle dwellers.


The tropical rainforest of Ecuador is a must-see destination for the avid adventurer. Its unprecedented beauty and diversity delivers an environmental experience that is incomprehensible without a firsthand encounter. It should be placed on the wish list of every traveler who wants to understand the true nature of the world and its hidden treasures. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cotopaxi with a New Friend

Cotopaxi Volcano

I just had the pleasure of making a trip to Cotopaxi with Graham Osborne, a new friend from a small town just outside London. He came here to spend a month visiting various areas around Ecuador observing the extensive avifauna of this beautiful little country. We met the night before for dinner and spent a wonderful evening talking about his exploits in the Mindo area and discussing our planned trip to the Páramo.

I met Graham at his hotel at 6:15 AM and we proceeded out of the Quito toward the park entrance. Since the ranger station does not open until 8:00 AM and we were a little early we decided to stop at a small café for some breakfast. As we ate a Black-tailed Trainbearer hovered around the flowers outside the window. It was an enjoyable moment before heading up the road to the park.

They have reduced the entrance price to $2 for both locals and foreigners, which was a pleasant surprise. The sun was shining, unusual for this time of year, and it was a perfect day for birding. We saw a little bird activity on the way up to Lake Limpiopungo, but outside of the variable hawk there was not too much to brag about. However, once arriving at the lake, there were many surprises.

Tawny Antpitta (Grallaria quitensis)
The ever present Andean Gull and Andean Coot were there to welcome us, along with Andean Teal, which can be seen on every visit. However, the teal had several cousins in for a family get-together. Andean Rudy Duck were swimming out near the gulls and Yellow Pintail were sleeping on one of the nearer patches of grass. Blue-winged Teal were also present, mixing in with the Andean Teal along the shore of the lake.

Before we could proceed around the lake, a Tawny Antpitta began calling out to us near the pathway from a tuft of grass not 20 meters from where we were. Graham took out his IPod and portable amplifier and began answering the little critter. Before long, the Antpitta hopped out from its cover and perched on a branch, singing melodiously to us as we watched. We spent several minutes listening to his song and observing his antics before continuing around the lake.

As we walked we came across several common species to the area such as the Grass Wren, the Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and the Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant. The highlight of the hike was several visits by the Ecuadorian Hillstar. It was very active, sometimes perching relatively close to us allowing time for observation and photos. Both the Bar-winged and the Stout-billed Cinclodes were present although on this trip the Bar-winged were more prominent.

Andean Coot (Fulica ardesiaca)
In addition to the bird species, there were several other visitors to the lake including numerous wild horses and a solitary buck deer that was grazing lazily on the northern shore of the lagoon. The deer watched us closely although he was a great distance from us with an expanse of water between. One additional visitor that is not seen as frequently was a Lesser Yellow-legs searching the marsh area for food.

Graham and I spent about two and a half hours searching the lake before deciding to return to the car and set out in search of some raptors. Unfortunately there was not much activity around the eastern edge of Cotopaxi other than Andean Lapwing, Black-winged Ground-Dove and Streak-backed Canestero. As it was getting late and the clouds were beginning to move in, we decided to head back to Graham’s hotel so that he could rest before heading out to the eastern slopes in the morning.

It was a good day for birding, observing many species and enjoying the elusive sunshine. Graham was able to observe many of the high-altitude species of the Páramo and took back some wonderful memories. It was enjoyable meeting a new friend and sharing this countries abundant beauty with him.