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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.