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CONDOR DAY – ECUADOR 2015 – PART 2

WINTER IN ECUADOR – 2015 – PART 2

For our first winter in North Carolina, we went to Florida and Ecuador! So much for acclimating on a year-round basis to our new home in the mountains. First we had a wonderful family Christmas party, and then since Phil had committed to teaching some of his former students, we spent some time in Everglades National Park – one of our favorite natural areas. Finally, it was time to embark on our long-planned-for 25-day trip to Ecuador. We had selected to fly Lan Airlines, have used them in the past, and were not disappointed with their service, and like many South American airlines they actually serve food on their flights!

We had 25 days to spend staying in birding ecolodges that protect and conserve habitats and wildlife – hiking and exploring in wild places, with our emphasis on seeing the fabulous birds of this tiny country. Another of our travel goals is to try to contribute to the local economies in ways that support a conservation ethic by staying at lodges that work on establishing and preserving ecosystems that enable wildlife to survive and flourish – and that cause as little disruption in the natural ecosystems as possible. In countries where the pressures are great for exploitation of natural resources, the temptation to “cut it all down” is always a threat.

On our previous trip in September, 2013, (see my October 12, 2013 post “Anniversary in the Rainforest – Part 1”) we discovered they had moved the Quito airport! What a shock! Who knew? Well, everyone but us. So this time we were prepared to land not in the area of almost-downtown Quito at an elevation of almost 9500 feet, but at the new Mariscal Sucre Aeropuerto about an hour east of town. As a result, we had followed the advice and wise counsel of our Ecuadorian travel guru, Carmen Bustamante from Cabanas San Isidro and birdecuador.com and her sister Irene, and had them book us a room at the beautiful Puembo Birding Gardens – and as their website says, “Its purpose is not only to give you a nearby comfortable and reliable accommodation but to provide an initial list of 30 some species of birds seen right from your breakfast table.” (puembobg.com)

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Puembo Birding Gardens Lodge

We were greeted at the airport by our driver/guide Mauricio who took us to Puembo Birding Gardens. The drive anywhere in Ecuador can be quite exciting – even horrifying if we are doing the driving. So it was especially pleasant this trip to have Mauricio in charge part of the time, and we could spend the drive looking at our surroundings, which varied from bustling, crowded city streets to bleak desert-like vistas and crossing very tall bridges spanning deep, deep crevasses with winding rivers at the bottom. In less than an hour we had arrived at our destination and were greeted by our hostess Mercedes who was as kind and welcoming as if we had known her for years and were visiting in her own home. She showed us to our room, right off the dining area on a large covered patio in the garden with bird feeders all around. Our nice-sized bedroom with private bathroom was very comfortable and well-furnished. The comforters on the beds came in handy since we were over a mile high (higher than Denver) and the nights would be chilly. The meals were excellent – fresh fruits, fish, omelets, juices, etc. and the birds were cooperative also – in fact the beautiful Saffron Finches and Scrub Tanagers coming to the many feeders were new for us.  In the morning after a sumptuous breakfast, Mauricio picked us up with our sack lunches prepared by Mercedes – and we were off for our first day’s adventure.

Note: All of the places we stayed provided 3 meals a day, which included a sack lunch if we were away for the day. All meals were served in dining rooms with the rest of the guests and usually served buffet style.

One of our target birds this trip was an Andean Condor, and this first day we were headed way out of town and up into the mountainous regions of Antisana Ecological Reserve southeast of Quito. Since this is the largest raptor in the world with a wingspan of over 10 feet, we figured they wouldn’t be too hard to find if we could get to the right altitude, since they are high mountain birds and (according to the field guide) frequently perch on cliff faces. So this should be easy. Of course, we had tried and failed twice before. Your driver gets you high enough and you watch the cliff faces and hope the weather clears. If the weather is clear, you might even see them soaring on thermals of air. No clear weather this day. We rode higher and higher (Antisana Peak is over 18,000 feet high) until we were above treeline, road getting narrower and narrower – cars having to slow down to pass each other, rocky cliff faces on both sides of the road – one rising hundreds of feet to the right of our driving lane and the other to the left of the car across a very deep canyon rising up to mountain peaks in the clouds. With gray skies and a drizzle of rain. A portent of things to come.

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Digiscoping an Andean Condor

Suddenly we rounded a corner and found 3 or 4 vehicles pulled off to the side of the narrow road, people standing around, in and beside the road, frantically motioning for us to pull over! Mauricio acted as though he was going to keep on going, but he finally pulled off to the side since several of the people kept motioning for us to stop, come and look, get out of the car, pointing off in the distance! And they were excited! Motioning, gesturing, trying to get us to see off across the canyon to the cliff faces beyond. They kept saying, “Condor! Condor!” They were a large family out for a Sunday ride up into their beautiful, though hazy,  mountains – mothers, brothers, dads, babies, grandmothers, school-aged children, all ages and sizes – about 20 of them all together. They pulled us across the road to where some of them were standing right on the edge, everyone babbling enthusiastically (in Spanish of course) and pointing. “Condor! Condor!” We realized that they actually were seeing a condor! And didn’t want us to miss it! So Phil took our telescope out of the car and Mauricio got his out and they set them up along the side of the road, and these wonderful people, who didn’t even have binoculars, could all take a good, close-up look at the Andean Condor, perched on a rocky cliff face way off across this canyon. This was their bird! The national bird of Ecuador! This was their condor! We found it and we want to share our special bird with you! The littlest kids got held up to the scope, every family member got a turn looking in the scope, and as each came away from the scope you could tell from their faces that they were thinking Wow!  That needed no translation. Someone went to one of their cars and even got the old grandpa out and gently helped him walk across the road so he could look, too. What a smile he had!

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Phil had a new camera device he was learning how to use and practicing with on this trip – it’s called digiscoping – using your smartphone’s camera through the eyepiece on the telescope. So he attached the smartphone to the scope (with a special device he had brought along) and on the phone you could see a relatively close-up view of the bird. As you would see if you looked directly through the scope. Well, you can imagine how excited everyone got when that happened! They all had to look at the bird again of course, and then one of them realized they could use their smartphones to take a picture of Phil’s smartphone’s view of the condor! Imagine! Can you picture all these folks – and us with no Spanish speaking ability “to speak of”, standing out in the middle of nowhere, high up in the Andes Mountains, chilly, drizzling rain, looking in the scope, taking pictures with their phones, babbling excitedly to one another, pointing off in the distance, occasionally stopping another car that happened by to show them,  and everybody smiling and hugging each other? Imagine!

I suppose I could write an essay about how birds can bring peoples together, but you get the idea. We eventually continued on our way, smiling quietly to ourselves, extremely satisfied with our first of many more birding adventures.

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WINTER IN ECUADOR – 2015 – PART 1

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Helpful signage at Cabanas San Isidro

For many months prior to Phil retiring from teaching high school last year, we had been planning our fourth trip to the magical country of Ecuador as his retirement celebration. Located in South America on the Pacific coast, bordered on the north by Colombia and by Peru on the east and south, with the Galapagos Islands way offshore, Ecuador is a land of friendly people, delicious food, many volcanoes (some active), the Andes, the extensive rainforests and cloud forests, unexplored jungles, steep canyons, waterfalls, and rivers leading down to the Amazon – and of course 1600 species of birds. How could all this not lure us to visit there – again and again?

But we asked ourselves – could we really see that many birds in this tiny country? How could we ever sort them out? Why would we keep doing this to ourselves? Why would we insist on going to a place where the birding is so confusing and frustrating and challenging?? And for the fourth time??  And yet we continue to be lured to spectacular Ecuador – from the near-sea-level Amazon to the top of the Andes Mountains at about 16,000 feet. And we continue to be astounded by the super abundance of birdlife – 1600 species of birds possible to see in a country the size of Nebraska or Colorado. And the total of birds in all of North America? About 800 species. Also overwhelming are those chilly Andean peaks, misty cloud forests and dripping, sweaty rainforests and jungles – teeming with thousands of species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, vines, airplants, orchids – all guaranteed to continually hide the birds from view!

For our fourth trip Phil contacted one of the very popular birding ecolodges we wanted to visit – at San Isidro, about 2 hours east of Quito, and thus began a wonderful relationship with Carmen Bustamante at cabanasanisidro.com. He gave her a list of all the birding ecolodges where we wanted to stay, how long we wanted to stay at each one, what birding we wanted to do, and Carmen and her sister Irene Bustamante took over our desired itinerary, made a few recommendations and adjustments, and organized a trip that would exceed our expectations. This was also to be a trip that – based on our previous at-times harrowing  experiences – would NOT leave the driving to us! We would have a driver part of the time and a driver/guide part of the time so we could concentrate on birds and scenery – not maps and traffic! A big relief – for both of us!

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Phil sitting on the porch at Cabanas San Isidro

NOTE: Why we don’t just make things simple and go with one of the many excellent birding tour groups such as Field Guides or VENT Tours and leave all the travel details, the finding and identifying of birds to them?? And get their group rates! First of all, we like to do things at our own pace. Our tendency on trails is to dawdle – taking time to look at wildflowers, insects, trees, etc. and take pictures. That isn’t always easy to do if you’re with a tour group that has deadlines to meet and the next lodging to get to. We like to select the places we stay and spend several nights in one place – more than most tour groups are able to do, since their time is more restricted. We also enjoy identifying the birds ourselves, and on occasion, we even prefer the casual, laid back, chilled out method of birding –just sitting on a porch watching birds come to feeders rather than the frantic pressure of following a guide and being part of a group. And at the birding ecolodges, sitting on the porch is always an option. And most of these lodges have easy-to-use self-guided trails available.

The trade off of doing things our way precludes getting a chance to know and meet other birders who tend to be the kind of people we would like to know and spend time with. It can be fun to work together with others on bird finding and identification, and when you are with other birders there are more sets of eyes to help find the birds. However, that said, when you stay at a birding lodge, there are usually other birders and guides available to compare notes with or to answer questions.

So, come along with us on another fantastic Ecuadorian adventure. I’ll try to post a segment of our 25-day journey each week and hope to inspire you to take your own trip to this beautiful country.

A NEW LIFE AT TRILLIUM WOODS

You’ve not heard from me recently – over a year, actually! We’ve retired from our jobs and from living in South Florida, where we both grew up and lived most of our lives. We are now living in and enjoying our small cabin and large barn on about 25 acres of mostly hardwood forest and creeks at what we call “Trillium Woods’. We’ve spent summers here for over 30 years, but seeing all the leaves fall off the trees in October and all come back on again in April and May is amazing! We are at about 2800 feet elevation and located in the Nantahala National Forest of Western North Carolina. If we get up to a nearby peak at Hooper Bald, we can see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park off to the north of us. And we are about a half hour away from the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area.

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Our new “birdventure” is right here at Trillium Woods – keeping track of what comes to our feeders, such as the resident Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches, Carolina Wrens, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

During the winter the Dark-eyed Juncos and Winter Wrens come down from the higher elevations and stay here for a couple of months. The Cherokee Indians who live nearby have always called the Juncos the snowbirds, and one of the ranges nearby are the Snowbird Mountains. The Winter Wrens seem to like the nooks and crannies of the warm barn during cold spells, and occasionally Phil has to help one find its way out. One delight is hearing their tinkling musical song once in a while during their stay.

We also have resident Wood Thrushes, Pileated Woodpeckers, Broad-winged Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Hooded Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Parula Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Eastern Towhees, American Crows, Yellow-throated Warblers, Ovenbirds, and more to be discovered.

During fall migration last year we had up to 10 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visiting our feeders – at one time! The biggest challenge with our new life, though, is learning the bird calls, since many of them hang out high up in the treetops out of sight – one of the problems of living in a forest. Fortunately, I have an app on my iPhone that has the calls, and I wander down our road listening hard, then try to match the call with something on my phone. It’s a slow process, but a nice way to spend a few minutes each day on my half-mile walk to the mailbox.

I plan to be reporting on our bird adventures regularly, now that things are beginning to get settled in our new life, and on my agenda is to tell you about our 25-day trip to Ecuador last January and February. Hope you enjoy it!

GOLFING AND BIRDING

Sarah birdingGOLFING AND BIRDING

 

A birding friend of ours has a golfer for a partner, so everywhere he goes golfing, she gets to go birding. It works out rather nicely. Except that when she sees a new bird their play is disrupted by her jumping up and down and shouting “YES!”

So there we were a few years ago, flipping through the channels on a weekend in April and came across that mega golf tournament, “The Masters”, being played in Augusta, Ga. It looked so beautiful – huge trees all new leafy green, hundreds of azaleas all in flamboyant shades of pink and rose, and the hushed crowd alongside a green all watching intently as the contestants struggled to get balls into holes.

We watched for a few minutes and suddenly realized that it was so quiet on the course, we were actually hearing birds calling in the distance. A Carolina Wren was making a rolling, trilling “teakettle, teakettle” song. No one looked u all eyes were on the hole and the golfer. There it was again – “teakettle, teakettle”. Couldn’t those people hear it? Why was no one lifting their binoculars to get a look at the beautiful little stripey bird sitting on one of the azaleas? The golfer’s eyes never left the ball. Both he and the wren and the crowd were concentrating too hard.

Phil said, “Wasn’t that a Carolina Wren?” I said, “Don’t change the channel! I hear a mockingbird!”

So there we were, watching a golf tournament, keeping track of the birds we were hearing! It hasn’t always been this way on golf courses. Years ago, the goal in designing some golf courses was to concentrate on clearing out plants so the balls could fly smoothly, and using huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides to keep those greens green, and pouring thousands of gallons of water onto the courses to keep things hydrated.

Fortunately, there are now efforts between the United State Golf Association and Audubon International to “promote ecologically sound land management and the conservation of natural resources” through the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

See a complete description of the program in an article at http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5272

Briefly, the program, in which over 2,000 golf courses around the world are participating (according to their website), gives certification to golf courses in 6 categories – Environmental Planning, Wildlife and Habitat Management, Outreach and Education, Chemical Use Reduction and Safety, Water Conservation, and Water Quality Management. These efforts should “facilitate the implementation of environmental management practices that ensure natural resources are sustainably used and conserved.”

These are lofty goals and should be achievable. The Audubon International “Standard Environmental Management Practices” will help people “enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide, improve efficiency, and minimize potentially harmful impacts of golf course operations . . .”

And give us more to listen to when we watch a golf game on TV!

 

 

 

Part 5. Finale – Anniversary in Ecuador, 2013

ANNIVERSARY IN THE RAIN FOREST – PART 5

 Day 5, Sunday, September 29. Papallacta – the top of the Andes.

                  This would be our last day of birding on this trip. We were up early, ate our usual breakfast, and headed out to cross the immense megalopolis of Quito – huge, and crammed with almost 3 million people! We stopped to pick up Julio’s younger brother, Ruben, who was coming along for the ride since he had never been up to where we were going, and he would do some of the driving. We were glad to have him along and were soon across Quito and heading east on the steep, winding road up to the top of the Andes at Papallacta Pass – 12, 200 feet high and almost 2 hours from our San Jorge de Quito Eco-lodge.

 

The day was cloudy and as we gained altitude it became even cloudier and misty. Our chances of seeing condors, one of our target birds, were waning. We stopped at a hot springs facility (popular in that area) and got permission to go higher up into a restricted area. We parked alongside a large reservoir and watched at Andean Gulls, Andean Teal, and Yellow-billed Pintails through the scope. And waited while an unexpected herd of cows wandered by.

We returned to the main highway, and drove even higher turning off onto a dirt road that would lead up into the paramo habitat – a high, treeless, plateau. Suddenly the misty rain turned into snow! As we made the turn onto the dirt road, Julio stopped the car and pointed down at the side of the road, and there was a new bird for Phil, one I had seen on our last trip – a Plumbeous Sierra Finch. And we were being snowed on! This was Ruben’s first snow, so we were all excited! With that weather, the condors were probably hunkered down somewhere looking round-shouldered and morose. I was in the back seat looking the same.

Visibility was terrible, but we did stop by a couple of small lakes and found a Bar-winged Cinclodes and watched it through the telescope. It acted like a plover or a killdeer, but is a beautiful shade of rufous. We stopped every so often to look for birds, and once we actually saw a Tawny Antpitta stroll across the road – in the snow! We drove higher up as far as we could safely go, but eventually the road got icy and we decided that was high enough. We got out and walked around a while – fortunately we had come prepared for high altitude and cold weather, so were dressed warmIly. I was excited to find several colorful alpine wildflowers blooming, reminding me of high elevations in the U.S. We even found a couple of chilly-looking people up that high that were camping! They didn’t even have a fire going – just standing around probably wondering what ever possessed them to go up there.

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There are lots of trails in that area, but when it’s rainy and snowy, it’s not too conducive to productive birding. And several of the access roads were closed because of the impassible conditions. So, we came back down and stopped in the town of Papallacta, situated in a steep valley, which is famous for their hot springs, and being a Sunday, it was packed with people and cars. We got permission to drive higher up to another Reserve and hiked probably a half mile or so, watching Black-crested Warblers, Turquoise Jays, and White-collared Swifts.  Julio found us another new bird – a Grass Wren, almost like a small Carolina Wren, which would be our last new bird of the trip.

                  We shared some of the snacks that Rosa had prepared for us just in case we wouldn’t get back by 1pm lunchtime. There was no chance of that! The guys shared 2 big sandwiches and I nibbled on my leftover Humitas from breakfast, which I had tucked n my pack, just in case. This was a sweet cornmeal concoction made with milk and sugar and put in a cornhusk and steamed. It was so delicious, and I managed to get the recipe from Cheryl, our trip organizer, who lives in the states. It was even good cold.

 

                  We didn’t get back to San Jorge until almost 3:30. After a brief rest, we got things pretty well packed up, watched some more birds from our dear little balcony, and hiked down to the lounge about an hour or so before dinner. Another couple had just checked in, so we got acquainted with them. He was retired from being a computer whiz, and she is a CEO of a biotech company trying to find a cure for malaria and is scheduled to retire in a few months. They live on a farm in Oregon, and have taken a few weeks off to explore South America. They first spent a week in Peru with a hiking tour company doing Machu Pichu, then several days at the San Jorge lodges doing plants, then they would be a week in the Galapagos. Very interesting conversations. It always amazes me that we pick out the birdiest places to go and we meet people there who don’t even have binoculars! They haven’t a clue what they’re missing. And we probably have no clue what they’re enjoying without binoculars that we’re missing.

Our last dinner began with our final yummy soup and an entrée of fish and potatoes. Another delicious meal prepared and presented artfully. One interesting note about dining at San Jorge de Quito – the server (usually Vincente this trip) always dresses to serve – black pants, white shirt, and some kind of weskit or vest. And this is true at all of their lodges – even in the middle of the most remote location. It’s very nice and gives a touch of other-worldly charm in the bush. Of course, it was appropriate for us to always dress in our field clothes. We never saw anyone dress up for dinner except our server.

                  Phil had Vincente open the office so he could finalize our bill and give him the tip for the staff. I had gone earlier and picked out one of their fleece jackets with a gorgeous emblem of the trainbearer hummingbird on it for our one and only souvenir of the trip!   So we returned to our room and finished packing, eliminating some things which we left for the staff, and set our alarm for 1:15am! We had to be at the airport 2 hours before our flight at 6am. And I wanted to make sure we had enough time to get to the airport – about 1 1/2 hours away from our San Jorge lodge. Vincente had arranged for Pedro (one of their drivers) to pick us up at 2am. And we went to sleep, everything packed, clothes all laid out, ready to put on – not in the morning, but in the middle of the night.

                  Thinking about clothes and packing: We did a pretty good job this trip of not over packing – not taking clothes we never used. Of course we were only going for 4 days in the field and 2 travel days, so it didn’t really amount to that much, but it is so easy to over pack. And it’s always frustrating to come home with things we never wore. It seems so senseless. So we keep trying to take less and less on our trips. In the first place, most of what we did this trip didn’t get us very dirty, except for the day we were in the Andes and we had to walk through some muddy places, which got my warm-up pants a little dirty on the cuffs. They were too long anyway. For the trip down, we had managed to pack all our clothes – including warmies (coats, umbrellas, hats, gloves, etc) – in our new carry-on bags, and had originally planned to carry them on the plane. However, we hadn’t counted on their weight, and the airline had a rule about the weight of carry-on luggage, and we were over the limit. So we ended up having to check our bags. Nuts. And we each had a shoulder bag and I had my purse/day pack, but it fit into my shoulder bag if I needed it to. Our shoulder bags held things like journals, field notebooks, reading material, binoculars, cameras, meds and vitamins. I even had an extra pair of underwear and field pants in mine. And Phil had his scope and tripod in his! We combined bathroom stuff into one bag, which he had in his suitcase (carry-on). We had been asked to bring a couple of items for our host,  Sr. Cruz, which Cheryl had shipped to us – a new camera and a new speaker headset (probably for when he leads tours), and I had those in my suitcase (carry-on). AND we had room in the top of our checked bags for our pillows – which we never go anywhere without. For the return trip, Phil even managed to pack the unopened bottle of champagne they gave us. Neither of us care too much for it, but we would share it with someone. We wondered if the lack of pressure in the hold would explode it, neither of us being too sure of the chemistry of the thing. But it was fine.

 Day 6. Monday, September 30, Our actual anniversary! The Trip Home.

                  It rained during the night – really poured! The weather had been mostly dry during the trip – except for the snowy day in the Andes. When our alarm went off it was still raining. Not total monsoon rain, but nearly so. We had planned to wear our raincoats, then stow them in our luggage when we got to the airport, but I had mistakenly packed our umbrellas. Nuts. At 1:45 a horn honked for us, and we put on our raincoats and hauled our stuff to a truck Vincente had driven to an upper walkway fairly near our room. Even though it wasn’t too far to walk to the truck, we got pretty well soaked, including shoes and socks. He drove us down to the parking lot in front of the lodge entrance, and there was Pedro in a sedan, waiting to take us. We hopped in, said our goodbyes to Vincente and off we went. I dozed and mostly kept my eyes closed all the way to the airport. I didn’t need to see Quito again. I would remember the rainforest and cloud forest instead.

 We tipped Pedro and went inside the beautiful, new airport building, where we stowed our raincoats in our luggage and grabbed a change of socks, so at least our feet would be dry. Our quick-dry field pants would be dry soon. We checked in, checked our bags (didn’t even mess with trying to carry them on), went through security, and found our boarding gate. Our plane actually left 15 minutes early. We flew on Avianca but the leg from Quito to Bogota, Colombia, was handled by Aero Gal. All four of our flights were on planes that had relatively big seats compared to American airplanes, and served meals! We were served a very nice spinach/cheese omelet and a bowl of fruit for breakfast on our first leg! We would have a 2 hour layover in Bogota. Unfortunately, our plane was late leaving Bogota, but we managed to get into Ft. Lauderdale not too late, so they must have had a tailwind. We were served a rice and beef dish, a small salad and a dessert. And we slept a lot!

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                 Back in Ft. Lauderdale, there were huge lines waiting to go through customs, but we managed to have interesting conversations with people in line, got through it all, walked to our car and got home. Safe and sound and happy. Nice long weekend – in Ecuador.

 

New Bird Totals:                  ANN – 16             PHIL – 19

Total Trip Birds Seen: 110

NEW BIRDS:

Note: Ann had previously seen 3 of the new ones that Phil got.

Crowned Chat-Tyrant

Aplomado Falcon

Red-crested Cotinga

Blue-backed Conebill

Golden-crowned Tanager

White-throated Quail-Dove

Orange-bellied Euphonia

Plumbeous Pigeon

Russet-backed Oropendola

Wedge-billed Hummingbird

Beautiful Jays

Strong-billed Woodcreeper

Tyrannine Woodcreeper (Phil)

Hooded Mountain-Tanager

Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant

Torrent Ducks

Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (Phil)

Paramo Ground-Tyrant (Phil)

Grass Wren

ANNIVERSARY IN THE RAIN FOREST – PART 4

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While our lunch was being prepared, we were treated to glasses of fresh lemonade and sat in the lovely forest setting watching the birds come and go to the feeders. What an Eden it is there. Since we stayed there in 08/09, George Cruz, the owner, has added a two-story lodge, which adds several rooms to their facility. The grounds around where the construction took place have been filled with flowering bird-attracting shrubbery such as huge flowering bushes of blue Porterweed. They’ve done an excellent job of adding accommodations, but still retaining a totally natural feel to the place. Beyond the nearby forest, valleys and mountains are visible through the clouds with tall Cecropia trees shining gray against the many shades of green. Eden.

Our lunch began with a delicious shrimp gazpacho appetiser, filled with onions and other fresh vegetables, followed by a yummy potato soup. The entrée was grilled tilapia with a cucumber salad and a lentil side dish. Dessert was a fig in some kind of sweet sauce. On our previous stay, Senora Cruz (Erina) had come to  Tandayapa to cook for us, and we knew she was an expert chef. So, this trip, when I had a chance to speak to her, I asked if she was still the “head chef” and meal planner and she said she was. (Vicente’s wife, Rosa, was cooking for us at San Jorge de Quito.) I complimented Erina profusely on all the food we had been served. Not only that, they had gone the extra mile for me in making sure my meals had no wheat in them. Once in a while my soup would be specially made and my dessert would be different from the rest. I really appreciated them taking care of me in this way.

During lunch, David and Paige told Julio that they wanted to try to photograph the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-Rock.  Julio said that there was a place not too far away where we might have a chance to see one, if it was OK with Phil and me to take the time to do it. The only other thing on our itinerary for the rest of the day was making our way back to San Jorge de Quito by way of the famous Nono-Mindo Road – mainly to look for Torrent Ducks. We had seen Cock-of-the-Rock before – in fact on each of our previous 2 trips to Ecuador, but we were up for anything, and there was always the possibility of adding others birds to our list – perhaps even new ones. So we packed up, added two more lifers to our list at the dining cabana (the Russet-backed Oropendula and a Wedge-billed Hummer) and hiked back down to the car. Phil observed something he had always wanted to see: the Wedge-billed Hummingbird piercing the base of the flower, rather than reaching in through the top of the blossom. This enabled the bird to access the nectar without picking up any pollen, and so that means that this bird is considered to be a parasite rather than a helpful pollinator like most hummingbirds are. We would have to return David and Paige to the lodge when we were finished, since they were spending another night there, before they went on to the Galapagos.

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We drove toward Julio’s Cock-of-the-Rock spot along a dirt road and on the way  stopped and birded several times and found Strong-billed Woodcreeper and Beautiful Jays (That’s their real name – and they are!). Both of them were new for us. We also saw a Toucan Barbet, a Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, and Spotted Woodcreepers. At another stop Julio found a Sickle-winged Guan, Tyrinine Woodcreeper, which was new for Phil, and a Hooded Mountain-Tanager, which was new for both of us. So we added several new birds!

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At the place where Julio had been seeing Cock-of-the-Rock, we watched and waited for the bird to appear across a deep ravine. This was the location of a lek where the male birds show off to each other, and for a couple of days a year the females come and watch and select a mate from among the show-offs. We stood around for about  half an hour, watching and waiting, scanning the trees for this fabulous large scarlet red/orange bird with huge white patches on its back.  Wandering back and forth on the road, Julio finally heard one calling. He had his scope ready, and suddenly out popped the bird, a beautiful Andean Cock-of-the Rock, who was calling for someone – anyone – to come look at how spectacular he was. So we gladly obliged, and in a minute or so, he was gone. Poof. Paige and David got some great photos – her telephoto lens really was terrific. We were all exhilarated!

Nothing left to do then but return them to the lodge and head for “home”. We had spent a great day together, we exchanged email addresses, wished them well on their Galapagos adventure, took photos together, and said goodbye – to our first Chinese friends. We hoped we would see them again one day.

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By this time we were losing daylight. We only had a couple of hours left to find more birds and get back for 7pm dinner. So we headed down the old Nono-Mindo Road, east toward Quito, stopping at places Julio thought might produce some birds. The road follows the Alambi River, a rushing, tumbling narrow waterway coming down from the mountains, and every place where we could see the river, we pulled over and searched assiduously for our target bird – the Torrent Duck – a bird we had failed to find on previous trips. These birds are similar in habits to our North American Harlequin Ducks that live around rushing mountain streams out west. We stopped at bridges, getting out of the car to look upstream and down, searching around the trout farms we passed, watching at every place close to the river, and finally found them, almost at the last spot where we could see the river.

There were 2 males (uncommon to see males together, Julio said) standing on a rock in the river, and while we watched them from about 100 feet away, they ducked into the water, reappeared and arched their backs and spread their tails, and disappeared. Got ‘em! They are such beautiful ducks, the males with long necks, white on the sides of the face with two thin black lines coming from the eye and going down the neck. Very distinguished-looking. It was getting darker so the only other bird we stopped for was to get a good look at a White-capped Dipper, also on a rock in the river, just like our North American Dipper.

Torrent Duck Photo by Adam Ripley, rockjumperbirding.com

Torrent Duck Photo by Adam Ripley, rockjumperbirding.com

Then we high-tailed it for home to make it in time for dinner, going through the small but tidy town of Nono. When we went through there in 08/09 I was impressed to learn that it had been designated a “Red Zone” – known to be in the path of volcanic earthquakes and rainstorm landslides and mudslides. Chaos! I had to remind myself that more than 10 peaks in Ecuador were over 15,000 feet high, and several of the 28 volcanoes in Ecuador were still active! I remarked then that “ Nono was the cleanest, nicest-looking village we had seen, with freshly painted houses, a Rotary Club meeting place, a huge school, Catholic church (of course) and lots of smiling, friendly-looking people – many of them looking very Indigenous – right off the Incan carvings.”

I wonder if we could stay in Nono some day . . .

 

ANNIVERSARY IN THE RAINFOREST – PART 3

Watching birds at lunch

Watching birds at lunch

 

 

The staff was waiting for us and served us a lovely lunch (soup, smoked ham chops, potatoes, etc) out on the patio so we could watch the hummers come and go to the feeders. It was after 2:30 when we finished and I was ready for a nap. Phil and Julio went on some of the trails around the lodge and up into the nearby forest, and of course he found a flock of Tufted Tit-Tyrants. I’ll never see that bird. And at this point, I don’t give a damn. Except that they’re so cute! After my nap, I took advantage of the hot water available and had a shower.

When they got back, nothing would do but Phil had to take me out to re-trace their steps and find me the Tufted cuties. We wandered around the nearby trails, going to the exact spot where they had seen them not a half hour before, and of course, they were nowhere to be found. The Tufted curse strikes again.

We went down to the lounge to find some hot tea and coffee and chat with some of the other guests before dinner. The Chinese couple had left during the day, but they had gone to the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge, our destination for the next day, so we might see them again. They were a friendly young couple, not birders, but avid photographers and were headed for the Galapagos in a few days. They spoke fairly good English, he in the computer tech industry and she in banking.

Julio ate dinner with us and we discussed plans for the next day. He was going to have to go into Quito to pick up 3 people at a hotel who had arranged to go with us to Tandayapa. Then he would come back and pick us up. We’d have to be ready for 6am breakfast. I wasn’t too keen on having to spend the day sharing our guide, but we had known there might be others on our daily tours.
Day 4, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013. San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge & Hummingbird Sanctuary
Vincente surprised us with a call at 5am and said we should be ready for 5:30 breakfast, so we had to hurry and get ready. For some reason, we were going earlier. Fruit, eggs, tea and coffee and we were on our way. Instead of Julio picking us up, Vincente was taking us part way to town to meet him. We weren’t sure why the change of plans, but we were putty in their hands. It was sort of nice in a way to be totally irresponsible. We met Julio along a roadside, and he and Vincente traded places. Julio was alone – the “townies” had cancelled on him, so there we were again, with our own private guide. Fine with us!

We zoomed through the streets and were soon on the “new road” to Tandayapa. This was a road we had driven on our first trip to Ecuador – on our way west from the airport to the town of Mindo, only this time Phil could actually watch the scenery, which is spectacular. Mountains covered by forests, valleys you can’t see the bottoms of, farms here and there on the steep sides – amazing to see it all. And Phil didn’t have to worry about the drivers, all of which he had named “Ecuadorio Andretti”.

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Crimson-rumped Toucanet

We turned left on a dirt road – unmarked of course – leading to the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and preserve high up in the cloud forest, elevation about 5500 feet – a little over a mile. On our 08/09 trip (without a guide) we tried to find that dirt road and ended up in Quito! I’m still not sure we could find it again even now. If we could master GPS coordinates maybe we could. We stayed at the Eco-lodge the previous trip and were their 2nd guests ever, and the lodge had not quite been completed at that time. But we loved it! We were looking forward to seeing it again, and trying out their new road up to the lodge. Previously, you had to hike about 30 minutes up their trails to get there, carrying your luggage.

The new road up to the lodge is as challenging as any steep dirt/rock road we’ve experienced in the mountains of North Carolina. And we still had to walk about 10 minutes up to the buildings from the parking area. But it is nice to be at the lodge and not look out on a parking lot. We got up to the dining cabana and there were our Chinese friends, David and Paige (Anglicized versions of their names)! They were so pleased to see us, and hadn’t known we were coming. I think they had only been expecting Julio and had been invited to hike with us. So they finished their breakfast, while we ogled all the birds at the many feeders hanging around the cabana and took loads of photo

 

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Booted Racket-tail

It’s incredible how many birds gather at the feeders – many designed specifically for hummingbirds, and in that brief time we saw Green-crowned Brilliants, Buff-tailed Coronets, Andean Emeralds, Booted Racket-tails, Purple-throated Woodstars, Brown Violetears and Violet-tailed Sylphs – all very fancy names for hummingbirds. And I’m sure we missed some! One tree was devoted to fruit-eating birds and while we watched, it was visited by Golden Tanagers, Orange-bellied Euphonias (which were new for us), White-winged Brush-Finches, Golden-naped Tanagers, Lemon-rumped Tanagers, Thick-billed Euphonias and Flame-faced Tanagers. The display of colors would astound you. Another tree was draped with bananas and attracted the larger Red-headed Barbets and Crimson-rumped Toucanets. As with any experience like this, it’s hard to know where to look first! And what are they all? And where are they in the bird book? You have to look fast, and remember that any minute they’ll be back again, or something even more wonderful will show up! On the ground, maybe 50 feet away across a clearing, some kind of grain had been scattered, and there stood a bird we didn’t know. Obviously a ground-feeding seed-eater – a large quail-dove. We learned it was the White-throated Quail-Dove, another new bird for us.

We finally were encouraged (prodded?) by Julio to gather our belongings so we could get out on the trails in the forest. David and Paige didn’t have binoculars, but were laden with cameras with long lenses and a tripod. We learned quickly that whenever anyone found a bird, Paige was on it with her camera in a few seconds. She was a good spotter. David carried a video camera. They both smiled a lot and were very pleasant to be with, and very interested in the birds. We also pointed out plants, mushrooms, and insects for them. During the morning Paige expressed their wish that education in China could take students out of doors more. What an idea – field trips to teach natural history concepts!

The trails at the Tandayapa Eco-lodge are wonderful! They wind up and down, back and forth, switchbacks through the lush rainforest/cloud forest that surrounds you with endless shades of green. Occasionally, we could get glimpses of other mountains and forests in the distance. We were in the middle of nowhere, but in one of our most beloved places on earth. Nothing but jungle sounds, a watery dribble of a stream here and there. Julio said he heard a deer at one spot. He heard many things we didn’t, and those sounds usually alerted him to birds that were around. We would stop quietly, not talking much as we walked along, and he would make pishing noises to entice the birds closer. Or if he could identify the bird he was hearing, which was often the case, he would play the tape of their song to lure them closer. Usually, if we were observant enough and followed his directions, we got to see the bird. And David and Paige got photos and videos of them and were as excited as we were.

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David and Paige

We hiked for about 3 hours and added several birds to our trip list – Yellow-bellied Seedeaters (in a grassy area near the buildings), Montane Woodcreeper at the edge of the forest, a migrant Red-eyed Vireo in the trees nearby, a Barred Hawk soaring overhead, and as we got back inside the forest we found White-tailed Tyrannulet, Slate-throated Whitestart, heard and then saw a Plumbeous Pigeon (new for us). Julio made an odd noise and an Immaculate Antbird came closer, Phil saw an Ornate Flyctcher, and I found a Golden-crowned Flycatcher. Among the many tropical rainforest plants I enjoyed seeing was a ground cover that looked very much like Florida “Basket Grass” – a shade-loving ground cover. Of course, many red, orange, yellow, and purple gingers and heliconias were blooming.

There is a popular and famous birding spot near Mindo called Angel Pas Antpitta Farm, where Angel has managed to get several species of antpittas to come to worms he offers them. We visited there on our previous trip (future blog). He calls to them from the trail and they come out to get the tasty morsels. Julio is trying the same thing on the Tandayapa trails, and along the walk he picked up a couple of worms and carried them until he came to a place where he has seen antpittas. He called “Juanito”, we listened, we waited, he called several more times, but no antpitta appeared. Maybe the next time we go there, Julio will have them better trained. No matter – it was a wonderful morning!

Tandayapa Trails

Back at the cabana for lunch, we watched the feeders again and saw 4 more species of hummingbirds! Purple-bibbed White-tip, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, and a White-necked Jacobin. Don’t you love those names? And who thinks these things up? That brought us up to eleven species of hummers for the day! Overwhelming! Also, a Black-capped Tanager, a Palm Tanager and a Russet-backed Oropendola (new for us) showed up at the fruit feeders. What a day! And we weren’t finished yet.

NOTE: One advantage of spending the night at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge is that mammals frequently visit the feeding stations after dark. One animal that has been reported recently is the newly discovered Olinguito, a small member of the Raccoon family. This animal was previously thought to be an Olingo, which looks similar, but the snout shape and teeth are different. The zoologist who made the discovery, Kris Helgen, of the Smithsonian, said the new mammal had been mistaken as an Olingo for years. In fact, there had been one in U.S. zoos in the 1960’s and 1970’s and even though it had refused to breed or mingle with other Olingos, no one realized it wasn’t the same species! It lives in the cloud forests and is not considered to be endangered. And they may be living at Tandayapa!