Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Ecuador, part III

Finally, the day came when we had to depart the Black Sheep Inn. We awoke to the alarm at the painfully early hour of 3.30 a.m., gathered our bags and stumped up the hill into Chugchilán for the early bus out. Five minutes before the scheduled departure time - 4 a.m. - the bus driver's tousled head appeared from the front seats of the bus, and the busboy yawned his way out of the back door and loaded our bags. A bleary collection of locals descended on the bus and we were off with a merry fanfare from the horn: bet the local residents love that alarm call!

We twisted and turned our way south, past Quilotoa, until we were dropped off, shivering, in a frosty Zumbahua, where we squeezed our way onto a bus bound for Quevedo. This rumbled steadily down the Western Andes, the temperature rising as we descended. The four hour journey was enlivened by a brief stop to change a wheel in the middle of nowhere, then eventually we were left in Quevedo. We then changed onto another bus, taking us four hours further west, to Portoviejo, another for an hour longer, which took us to Jipijapa, then a final bus for yet another hour, to the coastal town of Puerto Lopez... The scenery changed dramatically as we travelled, from the high grassy paramo down through cloudforest and through successively more agricultural landscapes until we reached the lowlands, which are dominated by vast monotonous banana and palm plantations. The last couple of hours took us through some very dry seasonal coastal forest, some of which is protected by Machalilla National Park, then over onto the coast.

By the time we arrived in Puerto Lopez, we were shattered - we walked up to the Hosteria Mandala, at the north end of town, with barely enough energy to glance at the Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans that thronged the air and sea, then flopped gratefully into bed.

174  Groove-billed Ani  Crotophaga sulcirostris
175  Ecuadorian Ground-Dove  Columbina buckleyi
176  Franklin's Gull  Larus pipixcan
177  Great Egret  Ardea alba
178  Brown Pelican  Pelecanus occidentalis
179  Magnificent Frigatebird  Fregata magnificens
180  Pacific Hornero  Furnarius leucopus
181  Grey-breasted Martin  Progne chalybea

Franklin's Gulls, Elegant and Royal Terns

Magnificent Frigatebird

We spent the 18th of November around Puerto Lopez - we wandered into town to organize a permit to get into the National Park, found ourselves a boat tour to take us to Isla de la Plata, did a little shopping (ouch!) and found the spectacularly cute in the form of an Amazilia Hummingbird, which had decided to nest on top of a telephone cable leading into the local fire station: the sight of mum feeding a cluster of little red bills was revoltingly cute.

Amazilia Hummingbird nest

We then wandered up the beach, to admire the frigatebirds, pelicans and assorted gulls and ternsas the fishermen unloaded their catch. The way it works is this: the beach is deserted, bar a few loafing Franklin's and Laughing Gulls, a generously sprinkling of Sanderling and a scatter of Royal, Elegant, Common and Sandwich Terns. The odd frigatebird swirls around in the air above...

Unloading: the baseline - Brown Pelicans frolic in the waves. Bit like Puff the magic dragon, really.

Unloading: baseline - Royal Terns pretend to be thinking of nothing in particular.

Unloading: the baseline. Franklin's Gulls, Elegant, Sandwich and Royal Terns loafing on the beach

A fishing boat arrives and runs up the beach, stern first - this is the cue for the gulls to go up:

Unloading: phase one - fishermen getting ready to run the gauntlet...

Unloading: phase two - wahey! Up go the gulls, and in come the frigates...

Unloading: phase three - running the gauntlet.

A lorry backs down the beach, where it stops - about 30 metres from the water. Two men trot down to the boat with empty boxes, into which the fishermen shovel fish from the boat. The men then trot up and down the beach with the boxes on their shoulders, emptying them into the lorry. After maybe one or two boxes, the frigatebirds cotton on and all hell breaks loose: the air fills with frigates in a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock; whilst pelicans sneakily harass the men from ground level, the frigates swoop in and attempt to snatch something from the top of the box - any successful strike is followed by a frantic escape attempt, as any bird with food is the immediate focus of a dozen others. The whole display is spectacularly rivetting!

Eventually, Na tore me away and we walked up to the north end of the beach, crabs scuttling into their holes as we walked. A Yellow-crowned Night-heron on the beach was a pleasant surprise; then we crossed the sand bar to find a small lagoon stuffed to the gills with herons and waders.

Sally Lightfoot crab

On our way back we flushed a Lesser Nighthawk off a single egg, laid directly onto the sand.

Lesser Nighthawk egg

Lesser Nighthawk nest (foreground)

We finally made it back to the Mandala, where we finally had time to look at the remarkable artwork scattered around the place and admire some of the garden wildlife, including rather surprisingly, a couple of large Iguanas!

The dolphin pole at the Hosteria Mandala - at the bottom is the skeleton of a Common Dolphin, which stranded on the beach some years ago and inspired this piece of work.


182  Green Kingfisher  Chloroceryle americana
183  Pacific Parrotlet  Forpus coelestis
184  Amazilia Hummingbird  Amazilia amazilia
185  Peruvian Pygmy Owl  Phalaenopsis peruanum
186  Lesser Nighthawk  Chordeiles acutipennis
187  Croaking Ground Dove  Columbina cruziana
188  Whimbrel  Numenius phaeopus
189  Spotted Sandpiper  Actitis macularius
190  Sanderling  Calidris alba
191  Western Sandpiper  Calidris mauri
192  Wilson's Phalarope  Phalaropus tricolor
193  Black-necked Stilt  Himantopus mexicanus
194  Laughing Gull  Larus atricilla
195  Royal Tern  Sterna maxima
196  Elegant Tern  Sterna elegans
197  Sandwich Tern  Sterna sandvicensis
198  Common Tern  Sterna hirundo
199  Osprey  Pandion haliaetus
200  Blue-footed Booby  Sula nebouxii
201  Little Blue Heron  Egretta caerulea
202  Cocoi Heron  Ardea cocoi
203  Striated Heron  Butorides striata
204  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  Nyctanassa violacea
205  Peruvian Pelican  Pelecanus thagus
206  Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet  Camptostoma obsoletum
207  Tumbes Tyrannulet  Phaeomyias murina
208  Pied Water-Tyrant  Fluvicola pica
209  Superciliated Wren  Thryothorus superciliaris
210  Tropical Gnatcatcher  Polioptila plumbea
211  Parrot-billed Seedeater  Sporophila peruviana
212  Scrub Blackbird  Dives warszewiczi
Green Iguana  Iguana iguana
Gecko sp 

On the 19th, we were picked up at 8.30 in the morning and taken down to the far end of the beach, where we assembled with a motley group of other tourists and waded out to a boat for a guided tour of the Isla de la Plata. The island lies about 40km off the coast and is a part of the Machalilla National Park. It's billed as the 'poor man's Galapagos', though it seems as though most birders aren't that poor these days! We pottered out of the bay, the captain tinkering with the two outboards as we went, then pelted across the water to the island when he'd got them tuned to his satisfaction. The journey was reasonably dull, though a Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel or two and a couple of close Sabine's Gulls enlivened things briefly. Eventually we drew to a halt in a small bay, with a Green Turtle nosing and loafing around the other boats anchored nearby. We disembarked and milled around for a while, whilst the guides got their act together and a welcoming party of Long-tailed Mockingbirds and Collared Warbling-finches flitted from bush to bush, anticipating crumbs.

Long-tailed Mockingbird

Collared Warbling-finch

We split into two groups, one with the Spanish-speakers and one with the rest of us, and set off up the hill. Passing a dead Barn Owl, we stumped up to the ridge where the two trails diverge and the guide put us to the vote as to which way to head - along the ridge to the frigatebird colony, with Blue-footed and Red-footed Booby colonies to entertain us, or right, up the hill, past Blue-footed and Nazca Booby colonies to the possibility of Waved Albatross and Southern Sea-lion, though these were described as '50-50 chance at best'. All but one of us chose right, so right we went. We started out through a dispersed colony of Blue-footed Booby, about which the guide was able to pass on a variety of bits of information, including sexing them (iris size and call), their feeding habits and their nesting behaviour, their display and their courtship.

Blue-footed Booby

We then walked into a colony of Nazca Booby, a species only relatively recently recognised as different to Masked Booby, with which it was previously lumped. These are smart white-and-black Gannet relatives, with a taste for yellow lipstick.

Nazca Booby

By this time, however, our guide was losing interest and wanted to get back to the boats - the pace picked up, and we fairly yomped into the apparently deserted albatross colony, to be greeted with some consternation by a three-quarters grown downy chick and complete indifference by a superb brooding adult. She (or he, perhaps) sat tucked under a thorny bush, complacently preening...

Waved Albatross

We carried on at the same pace, briefly scanning the sea-lion beaches (nothing, but a fine view of a Manta Ray swimming just under the water's surface from the clifftop) and stopping for a couple of rather desultory lectures about some of the local flora, then careered down the hill to the boats, where we sat and waited for 20 minutes whilst they weighed anchor and came in to meet us. We then re-embarked and trolled round the island a little, so the swimmers could snorkel with what looked like some great fish, whilst the non-swimmer (me!) watched the tropicbirds and frigatebirds and finally managed to pick out a couple of Red-footed Booby heading in and out from the cliffs.

Isla de la Plata

213  Sabine's Gull  Xema sabini
214  Red-backed Hawk  Buteo polyosoma
215  Peregrine Falcon  Falco peregrinus
216  Red-billed Tropicbird  Phaethon aethereus
217  Nazca Booby  Sula granti
218  Red-footed Booby  Sula sula
219  Sooty Shearwater  Puffinus griseus
220  Waved Albatross  Phoebastria irrorata
221  Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel  Oceanodroma tethys
222  Collared Warbling-Finch  Poospiza hispaniolensis
Green Turtle  Chelonia mydas
Manta Ray 

We woke on the 20th to find that an unexpected visitor had taken up residence under our gable and that a rather smart toad was wandering up the path towards our cabin.

Toad sp.

Northern Ghost Bat. This smart bat stayed under our gable for several days, not even complaining about the fact that I took a handful of photos of it.

We headed into Puerto Lopez to hire some bikes from a shop in town, then headed on towards Agua Blanca. We were slightly unimpressed to learn that it would cost us another 5 dollars each for the privilege of passing the gate towards the village, even though we weren't interested in going to the village, just in birding our way up the riverbed. We wandered up the riverbed trail, slowly, admiring yet another community of new birds - besides the familiar Blue-grey Tanagers, we found such species as Blue-crowned Motmot, Streaked Saltator and a surprise in the form of a Pale-browed Tinamou. Lizards hurtled everywhere, many of them Stenocercus iridescens - something without a common name.

Stenocercus iridescens

Pale-browed Tinamou

These rather spectacular butterflies were common around the trail.

We continued up to Los Frailes, a local beach, hampered somewhat by the fact that Na's bike managed to break somewhat catastrophically: the gearing system on the rear wheel effectively exploded! We limped on to the beach, Na swam and I read, and generally chilled out before returning in somewhat ignominious fashion in the back of a motor-trike...

Puerto Lopez:
223  White-tipped Dove  Leptotila verreauxi
224  Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant  Euscarthmus meloryphus
225  Barn Swallow  Hirundo rustica

Agua Blanca:
226  Pale-browed Tinamou  Crypturellus transfasciatus
227  Orange-fronted Barbet  Capito squamatus
228  Blue-crowned Motmot  Momotus momota
229  Plain-capped Starthroat  Heliomaster constantii
230  Crane Hawk  Geranospiza caerulescens
231  Dusky-capped Flycatcher  Myiarchus tuberculifer
232  Collared Antshrike  Sakesphorus bernardi
233  Plain Antvireo  Dysithamnus mentalis
234  Necklaced Spinetail  Synallaxis stictothorax
235  Streak-headed Woodcreeper  Lepidocolaptes souleyetii
236  Streaked Saltator  Saltator striatipectus
237  Acadian Flycatcher  Empidonax virescens
238  House Sparrow  Passer domesticus
Northern Ghost Bat  Diclidurus albus
toad sp 

We went back to bus travel on the 21st, taking a local bus down to the Rio Ayampe, another site described in the rather useful "Where to watch birds in South America". This was a very good move. We saw virtually no-one and had the whole area to ourselves, totalling some 70 species of bird on the way. The river is one which the local council have contemplated damming for a hydro-electric power scheme. An interesting idea, but not the most inspired bit of thinking I've come across...


239  Blue-winged Teal  Anas discors
240  Black-cheeked Woodpecker  Melanerpes pucherani
241  Ecuadorian Trogon  Trogon melanurus
242  Ringed Kingfisher  Megaceryle torquatus
243  Red-masked Parakeet  Aratinga erythrogenys
244  Baron's Hermit  Phaethornis superciliosus
245  Pallid Dove  Leptotila pallida
246  Wattled Jacana  Jacana jacana
247  Harris's Hawk  Parabuteo unicinctus
248  Pied-billed Grebe  Podilymbus podiceps
249  Yellow Tyrannulet  Capsiempis flaveola
250  Pacific Elaenia  Myiopagis subplacens
251  Smoke-coloured Pewee  Contopus fumigatus
252  Tumbes Pewee   Contopus cinereus
253  Vermilion Flycatcher  Pyrocephalus rubinus
254  Streaked Xenops  Xenops rutilans
255  Scrub Antpitta  Grallaria watkinsi
256  Rufous-browed Peppershrike  Cyclarhis gujanensis
257  Fasciated Wren  Campylorhynchus fasciatus
258  Speckle-breasted Wren  Thryothorus sclateri
259  Hepatic Tanager  Piranga flava
260  Green Honeycreeper  Chlorophanes spiza
261  Crimson Finch-Tanager  Rhodospingus cruentus
262  Blue-black Grassquit  Volatinia jacarina
263  Variable Seedeater  Sporophila corvina
264  Yellow-rumped Cacique  Cacicus cela
265  Yellow-tailed Oriole  Icterus mesomelas
Guayaquil Squirrel  Sciurus stramineus
Rat sp.

We spent our final day in Puerto Lopez on a rather lazy note - we visited the fascinating garden of a couple on the edge of town - an ecologist and archaeologist who have been working in the country for many years and have a wealth of information about the local plants - especially their uses in food and medicine - the local wildlife and the archaeology of the area. We finished off with a wander back up the beach to the scrub at the north end, where we didn't see a great deal more of interest, but enjoyed a bit of an explore through the saltmarsh and scrub.

Unloading: redux. Just the same on a sunny day, but brighter.

Blue-grey Tanager

Epiphytes: in the absence of trees, power lines and phone lines make a great substitute!

Female Vermilion Flycatcher

Yellow-crowned Night-heron

Pacific Hornero

Croaking Ground-dove

266  Collared Plover  Charadrius collaris
267  Pacific Dove  Zenaida meloda
268  Semipalmated Plover  Charadrius semipalmatus
269  Kelp Gull  Larus dominicanus

The 23rd was a bit of a wash-out in many respects: we spent the entire daylight hours (almost) travelling back to Quito on the day bus. There were few birds to be seen and when we got into the western slope of the Andes, it started to belt with rain, so the remainder of our journey was completed in increasing gloom. We booked ourselves into the Auberge Inn, in central Quito, had a pizza and slept...

270  Swallow-tailed Kite  Elanoides forficatus
271  Peruvian Meadowlark  Sturnella bellicosa

The 24th wasn't much better in terms of birding - a day spent travelling to Otovalo so that some Christmas shopping could be done. We did get out to a small lake just outside the town, where we could admire the mountains and watch Slate-coloured Coot, Yellow-billed Pintail and a Greater Yellowlegs, as well as listening to the local Moorhens cackling in the rushes, but aside from that it was pretty much business as usual. The next day was a trip to the Quito vivarium and the botanical gardens, which entailed a lot of walking and some very informative botanising, whilst keeping an eye on Swainson's Thrushes and Summer Tanagers.

272  Yellow-billed Pintail  Anas georgica
273  Common Moorhen  Gallinula chloropus
274  Slate-coloured Coot  Fulica ardesiaca
275  Greater Yellowlegs  Tringa melanoleuca
276  Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch  Phrygilus plebejus
277  Summer Tanager  Piranga rubra

We took a last day out - a bus from Quitumbe towards Papallacta, a village just into the Amazon watershed. We managed to cause great confusion with the driver, by asking to be dropped at the top of the pass over the mountains, but drop us he did, and off we set. The cloud swirled dramatically around us, and we were able to admire the bogs and mires looking very Devon-like, albeit at a high enough altitude to leave us fairly breathless.

I know this could be Dartmoor, but it's some atmospheric paramo on the top of the Eastern Andes, above Papallacta.

As with the paramo in general, the plantlife was breathtaking as well. We wandered up a dirt track for a while, admiring a multitude of flowers, yet another species of hummingbird - Blue-mantled Thornbill - and a very smart stripy bird with an even more funky name: Many-striped Canastero. Brown-bellied Swallows swooped around us, earnestly gathering nest material and diving into their earthbank nest holes.

Bog-rosemary lookalike

We discovered that the new road offers few birding opportunities, but made up for it somewhat by working our way up the old road for a while, until we ran into a flock of Black-backed Bush-tanagers, which carried with it a couple of Rufous-naped Brush-finches, a handful of glowing Spectacled Redstarts and - best of all - a pair of Giant Conebills.

Black-backed Bush-tanager

Despite the poor quality of the image, it's one of the birds I've most wanted to see: Giant Conebill. Neither this photo nor it's picture in the field guide do it justice.

We rounded off with a couple of Tawny Antpittas and then a couple of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanagers on the road towards Papallacta. Finally admitting defeat through tiredness, we settled down by the road to flag down the next bus back to Quito...

Tawny Antpitta - out of focus and cropped, but it's antpitta #5 for the trip. Not too bad, in our view!

Moth of some description... It's a bit battered, as it was expiring on the roadside following an attack with a blunt instrument (a lorry).

278  Blue-mantled Thornbill  Chalcostigma stanleyi
279  Mountain Avocetbill  Opisthoprora euryptera
280  Many-striped Canastero  Asthenes flammulata
281  Tawny Antpitta  Grallaria quitensis
282  Pale-naped Brush-Finch  Atlapetes pallidinucha
283  Giant Conebill  Oreomanes fraseri
284  Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager  Anisognathus igniventris
285  Black-backed Bush-Tanager  Urothraupis stolzmanni

Sign-off view: our favourite Ecuadorian habitat...

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