Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ecuador- an update on travels

I recently spent three days travelling to some local birding sites around the foothills of the Andes with a great guide called Nelson. We used a mixture of public transport and hitch-hiking to get to three main birding sites, mainly that of Milpe, Rio Silanche and Mashpi. These three areas are of differing habitats and elevations, which allowed us to see over 200 species during the three days. 

Milpe is a smallish area of 100 hectares of cloud forest preserved by the Mindo Cloud Forest foundation, about two hours from Bellavista. At 1100 metres, it is significantly lower than Bellavista, and so you can find a large range of species which do not occur at higher altitdues. The various trails through the forest are great for finding mixed flocks, but primary targets around these paths include the trio of Manakins (Golden WingedClub-winged and White-bearded Manakins), near-endemic species like Choco ToucanChoco Warbler and Choco Trogon, and occasionally the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Some fruit feeders in front of the small self-catering lodge attract the magnificent Pale-mandibled Aracari, along with the occasional Choco Toucan and plenty of tanagers. Some particularly nice species that we saw whilst visiting included the Spotted Nightingale ThrushChestnut-backed Antbirds, brief views of Scaly-throated Leaf-tosser, and Purple Honeycreeper.

Rio Silanche
This is another reserve run by the MCF, although there are no lodges or facilities here- just the small 80 hectare area of lower montane cloud forest. At 500 metres elevation, the climate and habitats are very much different to that of Bellavista, and another array of species can be found here. The main attraction of this site is a canopy forest tower. This concrete and iron structure is 20 metres high, and therefore allows viewing over the canopy of the forest, thus making birding a fair bit easier in some cases. Some target species in this area include species like Purple-chested SunbirdScarlet-rumped CaciquePurple-throated FruitcrowWestern White-tailed Trogon, more Choco ToucansChestnut-mandibled Toucan, and occasionally the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Mixed feeding flocks can contain some very nice birds, and the variety of habitats in this area aided the finding of things like Laughing FalconsBoat-billed FlycatcherSlaty-capped Shrike-vireoBand-backed WrenWestern Slaty Antshrike, and lots of White-bearded Manakins. The more open terrain makes it easier to see raptors such as Hook-billed Kites and Barred Hawks.

This site is back up at 1100 metres, and is about two hours away from Bellavista, accessed via Nanegalito and Pacto. A huge lodge is opperational here, and owns a large area of 1500 hectares of pristine primary forest. Unfortunately it is extremely expensive to stay at the lodge, and so most birding is constrained to the roadside. Nevertheless, most of the target species can be found in mixed feeding flocks by the roadside, like the Moss-backed and Glistening Green Tanagers, the Black and Rufous-brown SolitairesPacific TuftedcheekOrange-breasted FruiteaterIndigo Flowerpiercer and Yellow-collared Honeycreeper. If it isn't misty, the views are stunning, and the birding can be great when mixed flocks are encountered.

Here are a few images from these various locations: 
Rusty-marginated Flycatcher
Pale-mandibled Aracari
Choco Toucan
Guayaquil Woodpeckers

Pale-mandibled Aracari

Orange-breasted Fruiteater
Moss-backed Tanager
Green Thorntail
Slaty-capped Shrike-vireo
Laughing Falcon
Pacific Hornero
Lyre-tailed Nightijar
Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Flame-faced Tanager
Green Thorntail

Golden Tanager

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Ecuador- an introduction

I have been Ecuador for just over a week now, and have gradually improved my identification of most of the resident species around Bellavista, although the calls continue to prove a little trickier to learn! The internet here is rather limited, and so I will try and do a post once every couple of weeks, as it takes about that long to upload the images! I will give a brief introduction to the birding and habitat around Bellavista, and try and explain some of the details related to this area of the country.

Bellavista is a lodge that has been operational for over twenty years now (since 1991). It owns a tract of 700 hectares of forest, which is a mixture of primary (untouched), and secondary (has been felled at some point during the past). Within the lodge's reserve are more than 10 kilometres of trail systems, which climb up and down the very steep ridges in the surrounding area. The lodge itself is functional as a centre for visitors to stay for a few days (or more), and it provides an excellent service for those staying to enjoy the birds, the plants, or just the forest environment in general. My job here is as a bird guide, taking groups of people out on the roads and various trails to point out the wonderful variety of species that inhabit the area.

The lodge itself is located at 2250 metres altitude, at the top of a forested ridge, on the upper slopes of the Tandayapa Valley. At such a high altitude, the forest ecosystem is classed as upper montane rain forest. The area is part of a broad area called the Choco region, which extends from western Colombia through to North-west Ecuador. This area is said to have one of the wettest non-seasonal climates on Earth, receiving between two and six metres of rain per year. The climate and altitude supports a very unique ecosystem, which in turn supports a large number of species of flora and fauna, some of which are completely restricted to the Choco region.

Volcan Pichincha from Bellavista, visible once the mist clears and occasionally dusted with snow
A typical view of the cloud forest canopy from within the forest. Most days either light rain or mist rolls in during the early afternoon, but clears away again by midnight. Clear skies often remain until 9am. This daily pattern seems very much the standard at the moment.

The view from just above the lodge, looking over the Tandayapa Valley to nearby forested ridges

The Birds
As eluded to earlier, there are number of species found here which are restricted to the Choco region. Species such as the Plate-billed Mountain-toucanToucan BarbetOcellated Tapaculo and Tanager Finch are not found anywhere except for in this region. For several of these species, Bellavista is one of the best places in the Choco region to see them! For example, a small stretch of road two kilometres away is home to about four pairs of Tanager Finches, which is a very rare species that inhabits the mountainous region. Aside the near-endemic species, the surrounding area is a great place to see gaudy Tanagers, loads of cool hummingbirds and plenty of brown-looking furnarids too! A total of 360 species have been seen in the vicinity of Bellavista, and about 70 of these can be encountered on a good day. Some common species around on a day-to-day basis include Masked TrogonsStrong-billed WoodcreeperBlue-winged Mountain-tanagerTurquoise JayBlackburnian WarblersSlate-throated Whitestarts and Russet-crowned Warblers.

The stunning Plate-billed Mountain-toucan can be found most days around Bellavista's trail systems, often feeding on small fruits. The largest flock I have seen so far is ten.

Toucan Barbets are an extremely pretty species of barbet, belonging to an obscure family called Semnorsnis. They are very large, hence the name, as often this species can be confused with a toucan in flight!
Bellavista is the only place in the world where this species, the Tanager Finch, is seen with any significant frequency. There are probably around four pairs breeding in the area, which makes them fairly tricky to find. 
Fawn-breasted Tanager
Blue-winged Mountain-tanagers are a much more common species which are seen every day around the lodge, and can be heard in mixed feeding flocks around the forest canopy.

Slate-throated Whitestart- a very common species around Bellavista

A short distance from Bellavista is a place called Pas de las Aves, where Angel Pas has gradually befriended a range of antpitta species and other forest floor species that are otherwise very hard to see. Calling them out by name, Angel also gives his avian friends a few worms to encourage them out to the astounded birders. Perhaps the most famous species that Angel has befriended is that of 'Maria', the Giant Antpitta. Before Pas de las Aves, this species was a near-mythical bird. These two antpittas are the more common species found here: Chestnut-crowned Antpitta (top), Ochre-breasted Antpitta (middle) and Yellow-breasted Antpitta (lower).

Rufous-breasted Ant-thrush

Hummingbirds abound all over the valley, and there are a variety of different lodges with a good array of feeders placed out to attract these sugar-loving species. At Bellavista, the most common hummingbird species is the Buff-tailed Coronet (top), along with Speckled Hummingbirds (middle), and a few of the Purple-throated Woodstars (bottom), which are truly tiny and sound like bumble bees when they fly on by! Amongst the most attractive species here are the Booted Racket-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph- pictures to follow!

The moths at the lodge come in an incredible array of shapes colours and sizes. There are a handful of lights left on around the lodge to help people find their way around at night. These attract hundreds of moths every night, which are unfortunately then massacred in the morning by a large variety of birds. There have been some truly stunning moths, but unfortunately there is no literature or info here on the moths, so I am working in the dark- literally!

The plants around the rainforest are incredible, although I haven't managed to include many of them in this post. The trees are covered with epiphytes, such as bromeliads (top), ferns and moss

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Macro Images from The Lakes

Having left the island early last Monday due to a rough weather outlook, I have spent the last week in The Lakes staying with some friends. In between hill walks I have managed to get a few images, although the lighting and conditions haven't been amazing. A slight frost this morning made for some nice macro images after a clear night, and the sun even made a brief appearance .

Here is a small selection of macro shots taken yesterday and today, using Canon 7D and Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens.

Backlit fern

Oak Leaf in frost with a small stream in the background

Fox Glove leaves in frost

Backlit moss

Fox glove leaf and moss

Fox Glove leaf

Moss with some frost

Not very macro- an Oak Tree at sunset