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ANNIVERSARY IN THE RAINFOREST – PART 2


Day 3, Friday, Sept 27, 2013.  Yanacocha Ecological Reserve, Fundacion Jocotoco

Yanacocha Reserve

This would be our first day with Julio Ayala, our driver and birding guide. He ate breakfast with us at 6:30 and by 7, we were on our way in one of San Jorge’s mini-vans. We didn’t find out until our last day that Julio had been staying at San Jorge Lodge for the three days he would be with us, since his home was more than an hour away near Tandayapa. He ate all his meals with us, but we thought it was just because he was there to guide us. We thought he went home every night! He did speak English fairly well, but he wasn’t always forthcoming with information. We would have to get better acquainted, and this might be a challenge. If you know me, though,  you know I ought to be able to get acquainted with a rock!

Whenever you head out on a hike, you always have decisions to make. What to wear? What to bring? Julio had warned us to layer our clothes because the first few hours might be chilly since we’d be fairly high up – Yanacocha, on the northeast slope of Pichincha Volcano, is about 10,500 feet high. The temperature was in the low 50’s when we started out. Phil used a small day pack that fastened around his waist and that held his bird book, camera, notebook and pen, 2 bottles of water and a couple of bags if GORP he had brought from home. (GORP is an old backpacker’s  term meaning Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.) I used my shoulder bag (a field bag/purse) which held my bird book, camera, notebook, pen, and miscellaneous “purse” items. We also had rain jackets with us, but left them in the car as there was no rain predicted. They were in the last of their dry season days, so we hoped rain would not be a problem. Julio carried a scope, his bird book, and over his shoulder had a small amplifier which he could use with his iPod to play bird songs and bring birds closer to us. He would also use the “pishing” method of luring birds closer by making little shushing noises, like we do in North America. It works on these southern birds also!

Phil was using a new Ecuador field guide – “Fieldbook of the Birds of Ecuador” by Miles McMullan and Lelis Navarrete  (2013) – and would be trying it out. I carried  my old bird book plates (the pictures of the birds)  from Robert Ridgely’s huge, unwieldly book, “The Birds of Ecuador” (2001). Ridgely wrote the foreward to McMullan/Navarrete’s book and said, “I am pleased that the authors of this volume have generously offered to give Fundacion Jocotoco . . .that now owns and manages no less than ten private reserves scattered across the country, each of them protecting a critically rare bird species or habitat, a substantial portion of the proceeds from the sales of this book.” Julio wasn’t familiar with the new book, but he would be by the time our 3 days was over. Phil and I compared them endlessly, arguing their relative merits, providing amusement for Julio.

The drive from San Jorge Eco-lodge to the paved road was about 5 minutes down a very rough rock/dirt road. A few minutes west on the paved road took us to the turn off to Yanacocha Reserve, and from that point it is 5 miles up to the trailhead, and the road is very rough. (Sounds like all the roads in Ecuador are very rough. Well, they are.) This is an area that still has remnants of the “Old Inca Trail”, if you know where to look, which we didn’t. About 5,000 years ago, (hard to believe) the Incas blazed a trail for trading that was built along the Nono Alto Plateau, along which we would be hiking and driving  during the next few days. Also, in the Yanacocha area there are remnants of the “Inca Ditch”, which was used (and is still used today!) to bring water down from the mountains to Quito.

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Unknown-1           As we went slowly up the rough road, Julio kept an eye out for birds along the road. Phil and I kept an eye out over the surrounding mountains and valleys looking for an Andean Condor, one of our “target birds”. Since the clouds had settled over us, this wouldn’t be easy. I was surprised to find many wildflowers blooming along the roadside – things that looked like yellow Hawkweed and Lupine in lovely shades of lavender.As we rounded a bend a couple of miles along, we spotted a “cottontail” rabbit on the edge of the road about 50 feet in front of us. We stopped,  the rabbit hopped, and out of the brush at the edge also hopped a Tawny Antpitta! This was not a new bird, but lots of fun to see. They hop or walk along the ground on longish legs and are very upright in their stance,  about the size of an American Robin only perhaps a little rounder. Julio got out the scope and we got to see the cooperative antipitta very well as he stood in the road, keeping an eye on us.DSC00601Back in the car and climbing higher, the clouds dissipated, and all was clear and blue and we could see for many miles. We kept driving along slowly, stopping occasionally at places Julio thought might yield some birds, and they usually did. We watched Brown-bellied Swallows zooming around the side of the mountain, and a few Purple Martins, recently arrived from the North America. I added a few birds to my notebook that we didn’t see, but Julio heard, such as an Ocellated Tapaculo and a Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant. We did manage to see a Crowned Chat-Tyrant that was new for us. One of the times we were out of the car, I saw a bird soaring high above the forest near a large rocky cliff. There were 2 of them – raptors – moving around, soaring, wheeling, then landing on a tree. They were pretty far off, but since they landed once in a while, Julio could get the scope on them and we got to see our first Aplomado Falcons, not a common bird. That was pretty exciting. Julio said he had only seen one once before!We finally arrived at the trailhead, Julio paid our entrance fee ($15 per person) to the Yanacocha  Reserve, protected and managed by the Fundacion Jocoto, we signed in, and headed up the trail. One of the birds we kept hearing all along the trail was Spectacled Whitestart, a kind of warbler,  which took us a while to find. What a beautiful song, highpitched and twittery like you’d expect warblers to sound. Their dark colors and white tail feathers reminded me of the Fan-tailed Warbler I found in Arizona 3 years ago.

IMG_0643This was our 3rd or 4th walk up this trail (including previous visits) and I am always slowed down by the amazing plants, both flowering and non-flowering.  And of course the dramatic views looking off toward the mountains and valleys as you walk along are always breath-taking.  You skirt the side of the mountain on a relatively flat trail, and at one point, even cross what looks like a concrete footbridge (with a rail of course), with  deep canyons way down below you, and planted fields way off against the sides of other mountains and many peaks absolutely covered by forests. It is really astounding scenery  – one of the reasons we are attracted to this area of Ecuador. And of course, all those mountains and forests are habitat for wildlife – such as birds!

We continued our hike and Julio found a Red-breasted Cotinga, which was new for us.  At several spots along the trail the Foundation Jocotoco has erected and maintains  hummingbird feeders,  and  near the end of our hike we came to some that were near a covered  seating area  where we saw dozens of hummingbirds – most spectacularly  the Swordbilled Hummingbird. It’s hard to believe they could hold up their bill, since it’s about as long as their entire body! Other birders were there, a group of about 8 and 2 guides, huge cameras clicking furiously, and another 2 men whom Julio knew and chatted with. We learned that his 2 friends had seen a female Black-breasted Puffleg that morning, the endangered endemic bird that is the specialty of that area, and the reason the Reserve was created. Julio told us they were doing some research on the bird for the Ecuadorian

IMG_0644Unknown-2 Conservation of Birds organization, which was studying the endemics of the country. They very proudly showed us their photos from that morning.  At the feeders, we watched Buff-winged Starfrontlets, Green-tailed Trainbearers, Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and Mountain-Velvetbreasts. An impressive mass of buzzing, zipping around, whirring, darting, zooming and swarming handfuls of colorful iridescent feathers.            Our time was running out as we had to return for 1pm lunch. On our way back down the trail, we got into a mixed feeding flock of birds and added Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, a Blue-backed Conebill (which was new for us), a Pearled Treerunner, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Barred Becard, Golden-crowned Tanager (also new), and a Black-chested Mountain-Tanager. And we were late for lunch.

NOTE: The photos of the Tawny Antpitta and Sword-billed Hummingbird are credited to birdfinders.co.uk and wikipedia.org, respectively.

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ANNIVERSARY IN THE RAINFOREST – Part 1.

Day 1, Sept 25, 2013. On our way to Ecuador          

          Well, we thought the San Jorge Eco-lodge was about 20 minutes west of the Quito airport. When we got to Quito (after a 3-hour layover in Bogota, Columbia) and cleared customs, it was well after 2am, the next day. We were expecting a driver from our lodge to be standing out front holding a sign “San Jorge Eco-lodge” for us (which is what we had been told) and he would take us the 20-minute drive to the lodge. Were we ever in for a surprise! Since we were there 5 years ago, they had moved the airport! So we were now about 1 1/2 hours away from the lodge. No one had told us about this change and we got out to the exit area and there was no one there holding up a sign. Uh oh.

Phil got someone to help him call the lodge to see where they were, and we learned that the driver had returned to the lodge and we should take a taxi! At the last minute (Good planning or premonition?), before we left home, I had made luggage tags – just in case of who-knew-what. I had very cleverly glued a cut-out copy of the lodge letterhead onto cardboard, encased them in contact plastic, and attached them to our bags. That is how Phil had their phone number at hand when he had to call them. And that is how our taxi driver had their phone number to call them to find the final road up to the lodge.

          We didn’t get an explanation of what had happened at the time due to the language barrier. (We have GOT to learn how to speak Spanish!) At that point we had to find a taxi driver who could find his way to the lodge – not an easy destination – especially with no street or road signs. A man (speaking some English) who seemed to be managing the taxis found a driver who said he thought he could find it. When we expressed concern and doubt, the “manager” decided to take us himself! We agreed on $45. He grabbed a nearby taxi, we threw our bags in the trunk, and off we went.

After driving for what seemed like forever, and being sleep-deprived, through miles and miles of Quito and the surrounding areas, we got to a road that we recognized from our last trip, but none of us (including the driver) were exactly sure which was the one that would take us up to the lodge. But we were getting close! Our driver called the lodge and got instructions for the last 1/2 mile. The manager, Vicente, and his helper, Fernando, met us at the gate and were so glad to see us, and so apologetic for us  having been abandoned at the airport. We learned that another couple had shown up at the airport a few minutes before us, seen the sign and approached the lodge driver about staying there. Since language was a problem, the lodge driver thought they were the couple he was supposed to pick up! So there went our ride.

We said a grateful goodbye to our taxi driver, with a nice tip, and Vicente and Fernando carried our bags up to our lovely room. We told Vicente we thought we’d be ready for breakfast by 9am.We had paid extra to have a queen-size bed and a balcony with a view, and in 2 or 3 hours we would actually be able to see it! But at that moment, at about 4AM, we fell into our deliciously comfortable, firm bed and didn’t wake up until 8:30 the next morning.

Day 2, Sept. 26, 2013. San Jorge Eco-lodge, northwest of Quito, Ecuador

Nights and early mornings are chilly there – in the high 40’s to low 50’s depending on the altitude. Sleeping under wool blankets and a comforter – and with a small heater in the room – we were warm. We opened our curtains and the doors out onto our balcony, and there far below us in the distance was the sprawling city of Quito (over a mile high) – chock-a-block with crowded, cramped city dwellings – with high mountains even farther beyond in the distance. Nearby, below us, was the rest of the lodge, tile-covered roofs, patios among gardens, blooming with beautiful flowers and with hummingbird feeders hanging all around, and nearby farms with roosters that had been awake for hours.

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Phil had planned for our first day to be laid back – just getting used to the altitude and recovering from the long journey to get there. There are several trails on the 230-acre San Jorge mountain reserve, so plenty of places to look for birds “in our own backyard”. We knew the day would warm up, so we dressed in layers. Our room was on the 2nd floor of the upper building, and required a hike up a trail through a garden to get to. Then a hike down in the morning to go to the main buildings where the dining room, lounge, office, garden patios, etc. are located. The hiking up to our room was the hard part – at least until we acclimated to the elevation. We relished the chance to get in shape for our hikes in the coming days, so did the walk to and from our room gladly, even if we did have to rest several times on the way up – mainly to breathe! So we hiked down for breakfast.

In 1790, several haciendas existed in that area that were used as Jesuit retreats. The hacienda at San Jorge was part of that community and in 1905, the Ecuadorian president and his family purchased it and the farm around it. In 1970, Jorge Cruz Sr, and some family members bought the big hacienda to develop an agricultural and cattle farm. In 1989, Dr. George Cruz and his wife, Irina, (the present owners) developed Hosteria San Jorge Botanical Reserve to show the historic and bird-important area to the world, and developed the Magic Birding Circuit with 4 other eco-lodge sites that they built, at Milpe, Tandayapa, Yanayacu, and Cosanga.

The staff was glad to see us at breakfast, and again were very apologetic for last night’s mix up. They showed us to our table in the dining room (seating for about 24), and brought out a pot of the thick Ecuadorian coffee for Phil and te negro for me (black tea). Half of Phil’s coffee cup he filled with milk! Next came a plate for each of us with a variety of nicely arranged fruits – papaya, melon, and strawberries. Then huevos – scrambled or fried. And we were set for the morning. I had told them ahead of time that I had a problem with wheat, and they were very accommodating – none of my meals (including the desserts) had wheat. Occasionally, my soup would be different from Phil’s, or my dessert would not be the same as his. They really did a good job, even though I can usually pick and choose things I’m able to eat from whatever is offered. I can’t always tell what the ingredients are if something is coated in a flour substance, like chicken or fish, but they were careful to let me know that if something had to be coated, it was with corn flour. We had remembered from our previous trip that the food at this and their other lodges was excellent. And we were please to discover that it was still true. Vicente’s wife, Rosa was an excellent cook! All our meals were wonderful, and mainly consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables and many of the native foods and dishes. For us, all of those features help make a trip very special.

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After breakfast, we spent some time sitting around one of the patios where there were several hummingbird feeders and managed to see Black-tailed Trainbearers, Masked Flowerpiercers, a White-bellied Woodstar and a few Shining Sunbeams. Aren’t those names great? We also saw Eared Doves, Great Sapphirewings (another hummingbird) and a pair of gorgeous Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers. And walking around the gardens, we saw Tyrian Metaltails, several Great Thrushes, and Sparkling Violetear – yet another hummingbird.

It was soon time for me to take a nap. The long day before and equally long night were taking their toll. Phil sat out on our balcony and looked at birds from there. Below the balcony was a great expanse of shrubbery filling an expansive downhill area to the main buildings. They had a fruit feeder stuck in the middle of the area and we could usually find birds there, such as a pair of Southern Yellow Grosbeaks and lots of Rufous-collared Sparrows. Phil, of course, found his usually Tit-Tyrants, which I had not yet seen.  When I woke up he had me join him on the balcony and we puzzled over several flycatcher-looking birds. After a conversation at dinner with our guide-to-be, Julio, we decided they were White-crested Elaenias, even though we couldn’t see their crests. I suspected they might be young ones.

In the afternoon, at the end of a walk on one of the Lodge trails, we returned to our room and noticed a couple of the staff coming down the stairs rather hurriedly. When we approached our room, we discovered why. There were flowers strewn all along the walkway leading into our room, a trail of them through the room, and an arrangement of them on the bed! Also, there was a bottle of champagne, two glasses, and a large platter of fruits on a table! How sweet was that! Phil had told them when he made our reservation that we would be celebrating our 30th anniversary, and this was their way of honoring us!

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In addition, at dinner that night, 2 other groups were there, and after dinner the cooks and staff and owner, George Cruz, came in with a beautifully decorated cake to celebrate and for everyone to share. A Canadian group of birders sang a French birthday song to me, then we explained it was our anniversary. It was all great fun and so kind of the staff. One of the couples at dinner was Chinese, and we had seen them during the day with large cameras taking photos of the flowers in the gardens. We later learned that they were the couple who had confiscated our airport ride the night before! They were very nice, spoke English rather well, and we chatted with them several times. After dinner, we also met the man who would be our guide for the next 3 days – Julio Ayala. He joined us with Jorge Cruz, the owner of the lodges, for our celebratory dessert and we chatted about birding and what we would do the next day. Our plan was to go to the nearby Yanacocha Ecological Reserve for the morning. Sr. Cruz again apologized profusely for the airport mixup. And we headed off to bed.

BIRDING IN ECUADOR

We’re off again! Celebrating our 30th anniversary with our 3rd trip to bird-rich Ecuador, a country the size of Colorado, with twice as many birds as the entire North American continent! Talk about mind-blowing!

Our first trip in 2005 was made possible due  to the hard work of some of Phil’s high school students – winners in a  Florida State Envirothon competition. The winning coach (Phil) won a trip to the Galapagos! Of course he couldn’t go without me – his favorite birding partner – and of course, we couldn’t go to the Galapagos without spending some time in the nearby rainforests and Andes mountains of Ecuador looking for some fabulous birds. LIke the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and the Streaked Tufted Cheek, and the White-tailed Tyrannulet, and the Pale-billed Aracari, and the Lemon-rumped Tanager, and the Sparkling Violetear, or the Green-crowned Brilliant, or the . . . well, you get the picture. Speaking of pictures, if you want to see what these birds look like, you can google each one, but you’ll have to imagine them deep in a rainforest dripping with mosses and bromeliads and orchids with  misty clouds rising up out of the steep valleys.

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Our experiences in Ecuador have been with friendly people, delicious native foods, and beautiful lodges buried in some cases way back in the forests, one we even had to hike in to. “Field Guides”, a birding tour company, describes Ecuador best:”Tiny Ecuador, covering only 2.5 percent of South America’s landmass, supports more than half its avifauna – about a sixth of the Earth’s bird species! Its incredible avian diversity, totaling nearly 1600 species is a direct reflection of its habitat diversity. Cactus-clad desert on the southwest coast gives way to some of the wettest of the world’s rainforests just 200 miles to the north. Vast Amazonian rainforests east of the Andes lie but a few tens of miles from paramo grassland and glaciers at 20,000 feet!”

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If we wanted to go birding with a group of people and be led by the hand to see many species, we would go with this tour company. They have a great reputation and reading their website and their newsletter is inspiring! However, so far, Phil and I usually prefer to hunt for and find our own birds, and even though we don’t find as many as we would with a guide, there is some satisfaction in doing it by ourselves. We have on occasion used a guide for several hours or a day, and in fact you can’t tour in the Galapagos without one! But because our time is very limited on this upcoming trip, we’re letting our lodge hosts drive us around! How easy could that be? We’ll let you know how we do. When we drive ourselves around we always get lost, since most of these Central and South American countries we’ve visited seem to have something against road signs, and getting lost is pretty easy to do.

This trip, we’re returning to a few of the places we’ve been on previous trips – mainly because we love the areas so much, and they’re famous because there are so many birds there. And we still haven’t seen them all! We usually spend at least a day acclimating to the high altitude, so we will enjoy birding again around the several hundred-acre forest at our lodge, San Jorge Eco-Lodge and Botanical Reserve about 20 minutes west out of  Quito, not far from the active Volcan Pichincha.  You can see pictures of our lodge and their other lodges at the website, http://www.eco-lodgesanjorge.com.

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Birders who have been to Ecuador are very familiar with the places we will visit,  the first of which is up a very rough 4-5 mile road to a trailhead at the 10,500 ft high Yanacocha Ecological Reserve, cared for by the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation. This is an area of “high barren plains and highland rainforest”.  Another day we will travel on the Nono-Mindo Road along the Alambi River  for several miles, stopping many times along the way to look at birds, eventually arriving at a famous birding area called Tandayapa. This road encompasses highland rainforest and cloud forest. Our 4th day we’ll go east, high up into the Andes,  to another well-known birding area at Papallacta Pass, which is a habitat in “high barren plains”, and reminds me of the area above treeline in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Cold, windy, short and stubbly vegetation, and oh yes, over 13,000 feet up!

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SERENDIPITY AND THE ISLAND SCRUB JAYS

SERENDIPITY AND THE ISLAND SCRUB JAYS

I’ve written several times about our first trip “Out West” in our new Roadtrek RV in 1998 (“I’ve Got the Bird!”, Feb. 6, 2012 and “Rare Bird in British Columbia”, Sept 6, 2012). I was reminded again of that huge journey this past weekend when we finally sold the Roadtrek, planning for future adventures in something larger – like a rolling, efficiency apartment. We sure did like that Roadtrek, and it took us to some wonderful places in this country, and we’ll miss it. On that 1998 trip alone, we traveled 45 days and covered 11,000 miles

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At that point in our birding careers, Phil was ahead of me on his North American Life List at a total of 612 birds seen, with me hot on his trail at 607, and it would be tough to catch up with him, much less pass him – which was my personal goal! (Someday, I’ll share a poem he wrote when we were first birding together entitled, “The Lister”.) On this trip our “Lust List” – birds we passionately wanted to see – included the LeConte’s Thrasher (see “I’ve Got the Bird!”, Mountain Quail – the cute birds that have 2 feathers sticking straight up out of the tops of their heads, Chukars – another “chicken-like” bird that was introduced into the U.S. as a game bird, and some pelagic birds we would have to go far out into the Pacific Ocean to see.

No matter how far ahead we plan our bird adventures, and how detailed our itinerary is, there is one among us who persists in heading off in serendipitous directions at a moment’s notice. Our motto has to be: “Just try to be flexible, would you?” For example, during one of our trips to the UK (future blog), Phil said, “We need to go to the Outer Hebrides tomorrow.” And our daughter, Jennifer, and I said, “What is the Outer Hebrides?” And we went!

So after we bagged the LeConte’s Thrasher on this trip, we whiled away our time, wandering here and there back toward the coast. The plan at that point was to head north to San Francisco, where in a few days we would pick up Jennifer, who had decided she didn’t want to be left out of this adventure and took a few days off her job in Orlando to join us.

We studied the map and our bird guide books, and Phil said, “Let’s try for the Island Scrub Jays!” This was a new species that had recently been separated from the other scrub jays – and that lives only on Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles offshore of Ventura in the Channel Islands National Park. The first thing we had to do was to find out if and how we could get out there. I thought, “This is just like the Outer Hebrides!” Enroute, I called Island Packers, an educational, recreational and research company (mentioned in one of our guide books) to see if they had a boat trip out to the Island the next day. And they did! And there were spaces available for us! Yippee! We drove to the nearby Channel Islands National Park visitor center to get further information, then checked with Island Packers and learned that their boat would leave at 8:30am the next morning from the dock in Oxnard – a bit south of Ventura. So we put our names on their list and drove to Oxnard to check into a motel near the docks. Since there are limited facilities on the island, we stocked up on lunch makings, had a seafood dinner overlooking the Pacific, and went to bed early.

We were up early the next morning, put together our picnic lunches, and were off to meet the boat. The trip was pleasant – seas not too rough – and we spent the one-hour journey doing what we usually do on an ocean boat trip – watch for sea birds and cetaceans. We saw Sooty Shearwaters, Brandt’s Cormorants, a Pink-footed Shearwater, Pigeon Guillemots and Heerman’s Gulls along the way, but no cetaceans. When we approached the island, a small skiff was launched and we rode into the beach and were deposited with our backpacks for our several-hour stay.

The Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 islands, volcanic in origin, and are maintained by both the National Park System and The Nature Conservancy. Santa Cruz Island is the largest, 96 square miles, with rugged mountain peaks up to 2400 feet high. Like the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, evolution has occurred for millions of years in isolation, and as a result there are over 140 plant and animal species living there that occur nowhere else in the world. There is evidence that human habitation existed on Santa Cruz Island for over 13,000 years before the Spanish arrived in 1542.

We had only a limited amount of time to find the jays before our boat would return for us, so we skedaddled uphill on a trail we had read about that would lead us up a dry, rocky wash, which turned out to be more like a ravine. There had been 14 inches of rain that flooded down the ravine during the previous winter, so there were many boulders and rocks scattered everywhere, which we had to climb over and around to get higher up into the canyon. It took us about an hour to hike up until we finally reached a stand of oak trees, which is where the jays were supposed to hang out and eat acorns. And there they were, waiting for us, right where they were supposed to be.

Island Scrub Jay by Tim Hauf

Island Scrub Jay by Tim Hauf

The Island Scrub Jays are very similar in appearance to our Florida Scrub Jays, but darker and a bit larger, but a new bird, nonetheless! We climbed even higher and ate our lunch under one of the oaks and saw even more jays. We were very pleased, and hating to leave, wandered slowly back down the ravine and relaxed on the beach until 3pm when our boat returned to retrieve us.
On our way back to the docks, we were at our usual post – hanging over the bow – hoping for cetaceans, but no luck – only a few sea lions. One of the great joys of birding is talking to other birders. We got acquainted on the boat with a British couple from Nottinghamshire who were in California birding for 3 weeks, and had been camping on the island. They were very excited to hear about our LeConte’s Thrasher find, so we gave them details on its location, and when the boat docked, we gave them a ride back to their car in Ventura. We enjoyed lots of bird talk with them, discussing where they would go to continue their trip, hitting many of the same spots we would, using the same guidebooks, so as frequently happens, we would probably run into them again. They were trying to get on the pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay – one we had had reservations with for several months. (Story to come.) Weeks later, after we were home, we got a card from them reporting that they had found “our” LeConte’s Thrasher and expressing their gratitude.
After dinner, lolling in the motel Jacuzzi, we thought over all the things we had seen on that serendipitous day and wondered what we would do the next day!

RAZORBILLS AND SCOTERS

Razerbill by Todd Ramsey

Razorbill by Todd Ramsey

          Last Saturday morning, we were on our way down A1A along the intracoastal waterway to our favorite breakfast place, John G’s, in Manalapan, FL. As we drove along, I kept glancing out toward the water, ever watchful. Suddenly, I saw a duck-like bird of a pretty good size floating near the edge of the water and told Phil, “Hey, turn the car around. I think I saw a scoter.” Sure enough, when we drove back, there it was, bobbing along – a scoter. But which one? We’ve seen 3 species in Florida – Black (the most common), White-winged, and Surf (both of those being rare to uncommon). (Robertson and Woolfenden, Florida Bird Species: An Annotated List, FOS, 1992.)

We were only about 10 minutes from home, so back we went for binoculars. And sure enough, when we returned – there was the scoter, still bobbing along, a little farther north but still close to shore. I was driving this time since Phil is the waterfowl expert, and I pulled over,  he hopped out, got his binos on the bird and since there were no cars coming, I got a quick look too before we continued on our way to breakfast. Female Black Scoter! Wow! Good bird! Pranty says, “. . . rare to uncommon . . . found in small numbers off Florida’s northern coasts. Black Scoters are the most numerous scoter . . .although numbers fluctuate annually.” (Birds of Florida, Pranty, Radamaker, Kennedy. Lone PIne, 2006.)

Apparently, strong east/northeast winds had driven these ocean birds in close to shore. We immediately called our friend, Brian Hope, who is the local hotshot birder who keeps track of sightings so we could report the scoter, and he said, “Where have you guys been? They’ve been around for days! Thousands of them off shore [in the ocean] and thousands of Razorbills! You need to get to the beach!”

Razorbills!?! Holy Toledo!! That would be a new bird for us!  We called a couple of friends we thought might be interested, met one of them at our house, picked up our telescope, and headed south to the Boynton Inlet. We walked partway out on the jetty where huge breakers were crashing over the top. There were a few birders “on duty” watching the ocean and looking through their scopes. Every few minutes someone would call out, “Here come more scoters!”, and we’d all look at the direction they were pointing and try to get our binoculars on them. Hundreds of Black Scoters scooted by, mostly heading south.

Someone nearby, looking through his scope, said, “I’ve got one!” And he described where he was looking, and we got our first look at a Razorbill. He very kindly (like most birders will) let us take a peek through his scope, and there floated a bird up and down in the waves that at first glance – if you were in the Southern Hemisphere –  you might think was a penguin! Mostly black and white, with a very thick bill, floating around on the surface – then all of a sudden it flew! As we all know, penguins don’t fly. The Razorbill is part of a family of birds known as Alcids (such as puffins, guillemots and murres) which are the Northern Hemisphere counterpart to penguins in the Southern Hemisphere. We continued watching and searching the ocean, and during the hour we were there,  we saw many flocks of Razorbills and scoters flying by. What a great way to spend a morning!

We drove back north on A1A and took time to let our friend see the Black Scoter we had originally found, and by that time there were 3 of them! We decided to go nearby and walk out on the Lake Worth Pier and see if we could see Razorbills from there. It only made sense that they’d be there also. And sure enough, we saw flock after flock of them flying by, in groups of 8 to 12, some very close to the pier. They seemed to be flying south, then they’d see the pier and head east, go out around the end of the pier, and then turn again and keep going south. Normally these birds are WAY out at sea, so this was really special for us to see them so close in.

As we returned home for the third time that day, we suddenly remembered our dear long-time birding friends, Marge Eaton and Gloria Hunter, who don’t often get out to do this kind of birding anymore, so we gave them a call, and Phil picked them up and took them to the pier and managed to find a few more Razorbills, still managing to avoid the pier as they headed south. By the time he took Marge and Gloria home, elated by their adventure, another pair of friends had called to say they were on the way and would Phil take them to see the Razorbills. Unfortunately, by that time, things along the coast – birdwise – had begun to taper off. They managed to see flocks of scoters, but no real good looks at the Razorbills.

So, next morning, I called Brian again to see what was happening at the beach and he was already down at the Boynton Inlet again, watching a lone Razorbill paddle around inside the inlet! So our friends came again and down we went, and after searching for almost an hour, we found the  lone Razorbill paddling around a nearby dock. What a nice way to spend a weekend – with birds and friends. Thanks Todd for sharing  your photo!

SPECTACLED OWLS IN COSTA RICA – 1999

SPECTACLED OWLS IN COSTA RICA – 1999

Spectacled Owl wood carving by Elena Ay Grupo, Osa Peninsula

Our first trip to Costa Rica in 1999 was with 15 Jupiter High School Environmental Research and Field Studies students. From our Lonely Planet Guide, we had learned that: “Costa Rica is famous for its enlightened approach to conservation.” The field guide, The Birds of Costa Rica, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean says, “Graced with bounteous natural beauty, a stable democratic government, and friendly, peace-loving citizens, Costa Rica has become a popular destination for travelers from all over the world. . . . The shimmering quetzals, gaudy macaws, and comical toucans . . . only begin to hint at the impressive avian diversity found throughout this small country.” (It’s about the size of half of Florida.)

We were headed to the Osa Peninsula – in the southwest part of the country on the Pacific Ocean, about 200 miles from San Jose – with  3,000  species of plants, 8,000 species of insects and 1/2 of the 850 species of birds in Costa Rica. We were looking forward to actually being in the rainforest and seeing some great birds! After a day-long bus ride, we arrived at the Fundacion Neotropica’s “Tropical Youth Center”, unpacked, settled into our cabins alongside an immense rain forest, and enjoyed our first of many delicious,  mostly native-type meals – chicken, beans and rice, salad, and squash. The temperature was in the high 80’s with 100% humidity, so we were all pretty sweaty, and the cold showers before bedtime were a relief. Since we all had come from the tropics of South Florida, we felt very much within our comfort zone – even without air conditioning. The most any of us had to adjust to was not being anywhere near a drug store, a gas station, a mall, or a restaurant. We were in one of my favorite places – the middle of nowhere.

Our first day in the rainforest was unforgettable! Right “out our back door”, the nearby jungle of plants was lush with countless shades of green – huge tall trees, vines, bromeliads, heliconias, orchids, with insect, bird, and mammal noises everywhere. On a bird walk before breakfast, we found 20 kinds of birds, with new ones including Thick-billed Seed-finch, Common Tody Flycatcher, Riverside Wren, Turquoise Cotinga, Buff-throated Saltator, and a Striped Cuckoo.

After breakfast, we all walked down through the gardens of our lodge to the dirt road that passed in front, leading to the left or to the right. Straight ahead were extensive grassy fields with forest in the background. To the left the road went past a few small houses, the ubiquitous soccer field, and the village of Agua Buena. Our guides took us to the right, crossing a small stream, passing a few small houses and ending at a trail that would lead up into the looming rainforest. We were on La Catarata Trail and accompanied by large, iridescent silvery Blue Morpho butterflies. These sky-blue beauties are about 5 to 6 inches across and have a slow, floppy way of flying – meandering their way down the roads and trails. I will always associate them with the rainforest.

We split into two groups, each with a guide, one group taking a side trail, and we would meet at La Catarata – the waterfall. There were many things blooming – reds, yellows, oranges (those were the heliconias), lavender leaves on ground vines, airplants and orchids high in the trees, a visual overload. My idea of heaven is to sit down in such a place, and just stay there for a few days. It would take at least that long to take everything in. And still, you’d never see it all.

We wandered slowly up the trail, meandering like the Blue Morphos, crossing numerous streams, one of which I ungracefully stumbled into. Fortunately, I fall in slow motion and am usually unhurt. It’s just impossible to watch where you’re going, especially on an uneven forest trail, when you’re watching everything else around you – and when everything else around you is so magnificently alluring – tall tropical trees hanging with vines, bromeliads, huge tree ferns. A leaf falling turns into a giant Blue Morpho, a leaf falling turns into a small gnatcatcher – and there are tiny noises on all sides seductively taking your eyes off the trail and back into the darkness of the forest. How could I watch where I was walking? Maybe a guide dog would help – if I were strapped to it. Now I know why some people like to wander around on horseback.

We saw many birds and even identified some of them, such as Lesser Greenlet, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Long-tailed Hermit, White Hawk, Bright-rumped Atilla, Lineated Woodpecker, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Orange-chinned Parakeet. It was hot and humid, and steamy, sweaty bodies stuck uncomfortably to clammy clothes. The students worked on assignments designed to teach them more about the rainforest ecosystem, and  we watched armies of ants carry off sticks and dead bugs, making numerous trails across the forest floor. Tall, buttressed trees reached high out of sight among the lush foliage, with many thin vines hanging down from the tree tops.

The trail started climbing up to the waterfall and began to get narrower – steep and rocky – I had to pay very close attention to where I was going.  The trail followed along the stream up higher and higher in the forest, and by the time we arrived at the cataract we found several students from the other group already cooling off in the pool at the bottom of the misty cataract. A Purple Fairy hummingbird magically played around the edges of the falling water and in the mist rising from the pool. Everyone got drenched in the waterfall and the pool, and the cool water felt wonderful. What an idyllic scene!

The other group reported having seen a family of Spectacled Owls on their way up via the side trail! Our guide, Aider, assured us that we could return by that side trail on the way back, and would probably get to see them. We hoped he was right. They would be a new bird for us – and owls are always hard to find. After everyone cooled off, we headed back down the narrow trail to return to the lodge. As if we weren’t wet enough, it began to rain – softly at first, but eventually pouring down in buckets. We all were wet anyway, so it really didn’t matter – it felt cool and refreshing, regardless of clammy clothes. But trying to keep notebooks, papers, cameras, and binoculars dry was something else! Thank goodness for zip-lock bags in our backpacks. Also, we began to steam! And those of us wearing glasses couldn’t see! Those wet trails could be hazardous, and I finally took my glasses off and could see the trail better.

We got to the side trail that would hopefully lead to the Spectacled Owls. Even though it was pouring down rain, we were hopeful. Aider, our guide, was very interested in improving his skills of bird identification, so we stayed close together. We were going to learn from each other! We discovered that he (as they say) “was one with the forest”, a native Costa Rican, and could hear birds and animals where you would swear there were none.

It was still pouring rain, and we crossed another stream, and arrived at the place where the owl had been seen. We could hardly see anything for the rain. It seemed hopeless. Suddenly, Aider said, “There they are!” as one of the owls flew across the trail behind us! They flew again, and we saw where an other one had landed. I had to take off my glasses again, then look through the binoculars, and there staring at me through the rainy rainforest was one of the most beautiful birds I’d ever seen. They are a good-sized owl, about 19 inches tall. The face was dark, but there were white feathers like spectacles around the eyes. The chest and belly were a soft buffy color. The young, which the other students had seen, are snowy white with a black mask on the face. We were so pleased. Wet, hot, sticky, but happy. With a new owl to show for our efforts. Smiling in the rain.

 

RARE BIRD IN BRITISH COLUMBIA – And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

RARE BIRD IN BRITISH COLUMBIA –
And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

A few months ago I wrote about our first out west trip in our “new” Roadtrek camper and the quest to find one of the illusive birds we had been searching for several years – the LeConte’s Thrasher. [See Feb. 6, 2012, “I’ve Got the Bird!”]

An important resource that we always have with us on our birding adventures is phone numbers or internet addresses for rare bird alerts in the states we might be traveling in. A quick call can yield a current report of unusual birds that might be in the area, complete with directions as to how to find the bird. Most birders are anxious to share information, and all we have to do is remember to make the call when we we’re in each different state. And you never know what rare bird will show up, making the trip that much more exciting and memorable.

So in 1998, as we traveled up through Northern California, following the coast towards Seattle and Vancouver, we called the rare bird alert numbers along the way. Nothing earthshaking was being reported until we got into British Columbia. If you have seen the film (or read the book), “The Big Year”, you may remember the rare bird that showed up in the little town of Gibsons, British Columbia.

When we were in Vancouver, Phil called the rare bird phone number, suddenly grabbed a pad and pencil and started writing furiously, eyes open wide. I watched curiously as he wrote down the details of what the bird looked like, and the very complex directions of where we had to go to find it, then looked at me and said, “There’s a Xantus’s Hummingbird in Gibsons!” Whoever heard of a Xantus’s Hummingbird? Not us! It wasn’t even in our bird book. And unless you have a copy of the current sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, it’s still not in most bird books! The reason is simple. This bird very rarely steps one foot out of the southern Baja Peninsula in Mexico, where it is endemic. And in the very strong El Nino weird-weather year of 1997, one of them had found her way to Gibsons, British Columbia.

And where was Gibsons? A 45-minute ferry ride northwest of Vancouver. So off we went! We grabbed a quick continental breakfast at our motel, and headed out with directions from the desk clerk about how to find the ferry to Gibsons, a town not reachable by land – even though it is not an island. The mountains come down to the sea, and there are few roads in the area to give access. (Similar to some parts of coastal Alaska.)

We drove through Vancouver on a multi-lane highway and crossed the Fraser River. This is a huge river and Vancouver is actually on a delta, with many islands and a lot of water. Several rivers travel here into the Strait of Georgia – emptying the mountains of glacier and snow melt and rain. It’s really a beautiful area, but, unfortunately, any place where people could build houses and condos up against the mountains, they did. It’s a hugely populated area.

We got to the ferry docks around 8:30 AM, and found long lines of cars, trucks, vans, semi’s, etc. Wow! Had they all found out about the bird, too? We had about an hour’s wait until departure and we were just crossing our fingers that we would get on! And who knew how long the bird would hang around? Or how many other chances we would have to see it? While waiting for the ferry, people got out of their vehicles, milled about, walked their dogs, chatted, bought the morning paper, and we munched on food from our larder, as we had not really had a proper breakfast. We ate Tillamook cheese, a blueberry scone, apples, and cherries. And a couple of cups of tea.

Finally the ferry came in – it was huge! It would hold 3 to 400 vehicles, including us. We spent the entire journey out on deck, of course, looking for birds, at the houses on islands, tall mountains coming right down to the water. It was windy and cold, but sunny and clear. In 45 minutes we landed, and followed the directions Phil had been given. Also, as requested by the rare bird alert information, he had called the owner of the house where the bird was visiting feeders, and our “appointment” was for 1:30, so we had a couple of hours to kill.

We decided we would make absolutely sure we knew where we were going, so we followed Phil’s notes: Go on a new stretch of highway to Upper Gibsons and come to an IGA mall. Turn left 3km to Gower Point Road and right to Ocean Beach. It would be on the second street on the right. Park at the fork, and walk up the paved road to the house. It was up a road from the beach. We drove back to town for a bite of lunch, then returned to the beach for a nap, a walk on the very rocky beach, gathered driftwood, read, wrote in my journal, and wondered if we would really get to see this “lost” bird.

As it got closer to time, we studied Phil’s notes of the bird’s description – “it was a female, with a bill that was black at the base with a red tip. It had a distinctly white post-ocular (behind the eye) stripe that contrasted with a dull greenish crown. Framed with black under the eye stripe, the nape and upper parts were green, and had an all rufous belly.” So we were ready. We knew where to go and we knew what the bird looked like. Now if we could only see it!

At 1:15 we walked down the road and up the 2nd Street to the house and garden. Another car with 4 birders from Victoria arrived, and we all got acquainted and seated ourselves within viewing distance of the hummingbird feeders where the bird had been seen earlier that day. We had only to wait and be alert, since the coming and going and viewing time of a hummer can be very brief! And, sure enough, in a just a few minutes there she was – the lost Xantus’s Hummingbird – right in front of us.

We learned from a handout the hostess had prepared that the bird had appeared on November 1, 1997. It was now July 18 of the following year and the bird was still there. Her daughter had first seen the bird and of course couldn’t find it in any of their bird books – so they called in the big guns – the expert birders who finally checked the Mexican field guides and came up with “female Xantus’s Hummingbird”.

It is thought that the bird got blown north during one of several bad storms off Mexico the previous Fall. And of course – then it didn’t know where to go! It was not a migrant in Mexico, so it had no imprint in its brain of a route to take back, nor an instinct to go anywhere else! Who knows what ever happened to it, but at that point it was satisfied to stay around that beautiful garden and please many visiting birders. It was reported that over a thousand birders showed up to see this bird. It was present for 310 days from November 16, 1997 through Sept 21, 1998.

So we got to look at a beautiful bird we would likely never have seen in our lives. It had certainly not been a target bird on this trip! All we had to do then was get back to the ferry and back to Vancouver, which was much easier than finding your way back to Baja!