Friday, April 11, 2014

Buenaventura's Umbrellabirds

Buenaventura Reserve protects a remnant patch of tropical cloud forest at about 3000 feet elevation. The cloud forest occupies a narrow zone, and most of the surrounding land holds seasonal tropical dry forest. Another jewel in the Jocotoco Foundation's system of reserves, Buenaventura is small, only about 6 square miles. Yet it protects 12 globally threatened species of birds, another 30 rare and regionally endemic birds, and notable mammals like the Ocelot, Mantled Howler Monkey, and Two-toed Sloth.

The reserve has been cobbled together since 1999 from patches of forest and old pasture land. The cleared areas are now being reforested, with the help and support of local communities. Growth of the reserve itself continues; the target size is about 20 square miles, or more than three times its current size. 

Remnant cloud forest at Buenaventura Reserve 
(Photos by Narca)

Welcome to Buenaventura Reserve!

Graceful Swallow-tailed Kites are frequent

Soon after we check into Umbrellabird Lodge (actually it's a more casual affair than "checking in" implies!), we ask about the famous umbrellabird lek, and learn that it's only about a 10-minute walk from the lodge. Young Leo is appointed to show us the spot. We learn that the umbrellabirds are most active early in the morning, but there's a chance that we can see them at dusk as well. And see them we do!

Umbrellabirds are big, very odd cotingas, an exclusively New World family. The male sports a long, inflatable wattle hanging from the center of his chest, used in courtship. They also boast an impressive crest, which shadows their faces and bills. During breeding season, the males gather under the forest canopy at a traditional lek to strut and perform before the females. Their low-pitched booming calls carry far through the forest.

Of the three species of umbrellabirds, two are in Ecuador. The Amazonian Umbrellabird is scarce and local; we met it in Podocarpus National Park. Buenaventura has the Long-wattled, a bird I have never seen before. It lives up to its name: the wattle can be as long as the whole body! The Long-wattled is also exceedingly rare.

A male Long-wattled Umbrellabird, with his astounding wattle

Looking up at the umbrellabird and his feathered wattle; 
the eye is actually dark –– here you're seeing reflected light.

For comparison, here's a male Amazonian Umbrellabird, with his short wattle and pale eye. From most angles, you'd also see a white patch at the base of his crest, making a great spotlight that's obvious even from a distance.

Male Amazonian Umbrellabird

The trail to the umbrellabirds is steep, but very well maintained, with a sturdy metal railing where it's needed. Buenaventura has adopted the best system I've seen for dealing with mud: the concrete steps have been poured into small tires (that untrustworthy toy size that rental and new cars sometimes use). The result is a stable, easy-to-use trail through otherwise slippery terrain. A far better use for that kind of tire than on an automobile!

Dusk catches us on the trail. Further exploration awaits another day!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Roadside Raptors

In addition to a number of Roadside Hawks and Swallow-tailed Kites, other fun raptors are along the roads as we drive between reserves.

Harris's Hawk is familiar from back home in southern Arizona. What a large range this hawk has, all the way from the southwestern US to central Argentina and Chile! The South American race is smaller than the two subspecies to the north. Unlike most hawks, Harris's will often hunt cooperatively in groups. This adult and immature were very close to each other, north of Jorupe Reserve.

An adult Harris's Hawk above, and an immature below
(Photos by Narca)

Just north of these Harris's Hawks, we watch a light-morph Short-tailed Hawk at close range, spiraling upward from the ground with a long, slender snake grasped in its talons. The snake is very much alive and fighting, as the Short-tail attempts to subdue it in midair. Lunch can be a dangerous affair!

Later, after we leave Buenaventura Reserve and drop into the lowlands just north of the Peruvian border (and well south of Guayaquil), these two small raptors are by the road.

Pacific Pygmy-Owl

Pacific Pygmy-Owls are the only pygmy-owl living in the lowlands west of the Andes. Their range extends from western Ecuador all the way through coastal Peru to northern Chile.

Pearl Kite male

At about the size of an American Robin, Pearl Kites are the smallest raptor in the Americas, even smaller than Tiny Hawks. Their size overlaps with that of the Little Sparrowhawk –– these are the two smallest raptors in the world.

Pearl Kites also have a large range, occurring in open savannas and tropical woodland from Central America to northern Argentina. This kite eats mainly small lizards, supplemented by a few insects.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Flowers and Butterflies at Jorupe Reserve

Although the wonderful birds claim most of our attention, I'll admit that the butterflies and flowers are just a little distracting.

Cracker butterflies live only in the Neotropics. The males make a cracking sound with their wings as part of their territorial display, thus giving the name "cracker" to the genus Hamadryas. They are well camouflaged against their usual perch on the trunk of a tree.

One of the crackers, possibly Brownish

Of these flowers, the only one I know anything about is the first, a species of milkweed. Our guide Leonidas confirms that he has seen banded caterpillars, likely of Monarch butterflies, on the plant. The other flower photos are purely for your enjoyment!

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

I suspect that this butterfly is one of the tigerwings, likely in the genus Hypothyris. Others in that group show a similar orange patch on the thorax.

 A probable tigerwing 

Rather more earthbound than the butterflies, this big snail is nonetheless quite attractive!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Birds at Jorupe Reserve

Jorupe Reserve, small as it is, protects endemic species of the Tumbesian tropical deciduous forest in southwestern Ecuador. A number of the region's birds are globally threatened because so much of their habitat has been cleared or degraded. The Jocotoco Foundation stepped in to buy this patch of high-quality forest and create Jorupe Reserve.

We rise early for our day of exploring this gem of a reserve.

White-tailed Jay (Photos by Narca)

Along the path to the dining area, stunning White-tailed Jays are having their breakfast too, as they search out hapless moths that were attracted during the night to lights along the path. These jays live in western Ecuador and northwestern Peru, and they are very like the celebrated Tufted Jays of montane Mexico.

An impressive moth, soon to be jay food

The feeders here at Urraca Lodge have their own clientele. Handsome Guayaquil Squirrels are chowing down. This squirrel, like many of the birds, lives only in a small region of southwestern Ecuador and northwestern Peru.

Guayaquil Squirrel

A Plumbeous-backed Thrush joins the feeder birds. We'd met it earlier, in Vilcabamba.

Plumbeous-backed Thrush

A couple of fine orioles live here –– the White-edged and the more widespread Yellow-tailed. We see both, but only the Yellow-tailed cooperates for the camera.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

After breakfast, Leonidas is our guide for the day. He's very experienced, and his knowledge of the reserve and its wildlife is impressive. After a quick walk along a trail to see a calling Pale-browed Tinamou, we spend the morning walking down the reserve's road toward the highway below.

The road through Jorupe Reserve

A bounty of highly-sought-after birds makes the walk exciting. We hear, but fail to see, an Ochre-bellied Dove and a number of Watkin's Antpittas (their call sounds to me like "hey, hey, hey, whatcha doin'"). The other birds are much more cooperative, and before long, we've seen Gray-backed Hawk, Gray-cheeked Parakeet, Red-masked Parakeet, five Guayaquil Woodpeckers, Rufous-necked and Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaners, Blackish-headed Spinetail, and Slaty Becard –– all of these are considered globally vulnerable, threatened or endangered!

This male One-colored Becard, working on his monumental nest, is one of three becard species we see today

Other, less vulnerable species are quite fun too. We flush a Pauraque from her nest. I quickly photograph the egg, and when we return past the spot, she is sitting tight again.

A Pauraque's egg and nest scrape

The female Pauraque has returned to her nest

In addition to the big Guayaquil Woodpecker and the beautiful Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, little Ecuadorian Piculets are show-stealers.

The Ecuadorian Piculet, a tiny woodpecker

The Blue-crowned Motmots here sound different, and indeed they are one branch of the whole Blue-crowned Motmot complex. This superspecies is likely to be split once taxonomists have finished researching the group. If this split happens, the motmot at Jorupe will likely be called the Whooping Motmot.

A Blue-crowned Motmot (for the time being)

No day in the tropics is complete without a trogon. Here the trogon of choice is the Ecuadorian Trogon, once considered a subspecies of Black-tailed Trogon. We hear and see several of the gorgeous birds, and although they don't cooperate well for the camera, you may be able to make out the white iris in these photos.

Splendid male Ecuadorian Trogons (above and below)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Heading for Jorupe

Deciduous dry forest, Tumbesian style, at Jorupe Reserve
(Photos by Narca)

Jorupe Reserve in extreme southwestern Ecuador is only a stone's throw from Peru. One of the reserves under the aegis of the Jocotoco Foundation, Jorupe protects tropical deciduous forest, a habitat that has nearly vanished. Only about 1% of Ecuador's tropical dry forest remains intact.

The reserve is tiny (only about 2 square miles) but very important, protecting an endemic-rich habitat only found here and in neighboring northwestern Peru: the Tumbesian region. I find differing reports on the number of globally-threatened birds that occur in Jorupe, but it's about 20 species.

The reserve's boundaries are all too clear

The Jocotoco Foundation has its sights set on expanding the reserve a modest amount, and on regenerating degraded habitat within the reserve. Tropical dry forest can be more easily regenerated than tropical rainforest, as long as the seed bank is intact and the soils haven't completely washed away. (The regeneration of tropical dry forest was first demonstrated in northwestern Costa Rica.)

Recovery of degraded lands around Jorupe is being achieved through an ambitious project of revegetation. Within a 5-year period, more than 110,000 new trees have been planted.

Two of Jorupe's characteristic trees are these:

A muscular and much-admired ceiba tree, Ceiba trichistandra

Cecropia trees as a group are distinctive. There are more than 60 species of cecropias, and the northern Andes Mountains are the center for their diversity and evolution. Fast-growing, many of them pioneer both natural and man-made gaps within neotropical forests. Their fruits are highly sought by birds. Many of them harbor Azteca ants, which protect their host cecropia from herbivores.

A species of silver-leaved cecropia

Community outreach is part of the conservation effort at Jorupe, and it's winning staunch supporters among the local people. Ecotourism is also benefitting local communities like nearby Macará, a border town. The now-protected watershed also delivers clean drinking water to Macará.

If you wish to help the Foundation at Jorupe or any of its other reserves, you can make tax-deductible contributions to their work through the World Land Trust in the UK, the Rainforest Trust (the US partner of World Land Trust), or the American Bird Conservancy.

The Jocotoco Foundation has an on-site ecolodge, Urraca Lodge, which is beautifully constructed, and allows visitors to be right in the thick of the action.

The balcony of our cabin at Urraca Lodge; 
mixed flocks search the trees all around the cabin.

(Here's a tip, from our very fine guide at Jorupe, Leonidas: if you want to stay in Macará, the recommended hotel is Hotel los Arrozales. We spent a night in the reserve itself, and two nights at los Arrozales, which offered breakfast and air conditioning, and seemed to cater to businessmen.)

Birds like this Comb Duck may be found in the rice fields that occupy the short distance between Macará and the Peruvian border.

Now, against the background of this important conservation work, let's go birding at Jorupe!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Vilcabamba, the Sacred Valley

Vilcabamba at dusk, from the gardens of Izhcayluma (Photos by Narca)

Vilcabamba's popularity with visitors began at least as early an Incan times, when Incan royalty came here to relax. We decide that such a venerable tradition should be continued, and spend two or three nights here ourselves. The weather is outstanding, the village small and peaceful, and the valley beautiful beneath the brooding mountains of Podocarpus National Park.

Looking south at Podocarpus National Park in the distance

I'm including Vilcabamba in the blog, mainly to highlight a very fine hostería, or inn: Hostería Izhcayluma. The grounds and decor are beautiful, and all at backpacker rates: $30 a night (with some cabins higher).

The entrance to Hostería Izhcayluma

A number of other B&Bs and small hotels are located in town, which was inundated with young backpacking travelers from many countries, much as Monteverde has become in Costa Rica, but on a smaller scale. Izhcayluma is a short 2 km south of the village, on the main road.

Fun birds roam Izchayluma's gardens, including Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, Southern Yellow Grosbeaks and Plumbeous-backed Thrushes. Here are a few others, all of them easily seen:

Amazilia Hummingbird

Blue-gray Tanager

Pacific Hornero, an ovenbird, out for a stroll

Male Saffron Finch

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Podocarpus National Park from Vilcabamba

Remember that Podocarpus National Park is very big, and can be accessed from either east or west? Earlier, we explored the eastern Bombuscaro sector. Now it's time for the western Cajanuma Sector! This region has easy access by road to the páramo and elfin forest of Podocarpus, at the highest elevations, above about 10,000 to 11,000 feet. (In the east, we hiked at lower elevations.)

Montane cloud forest at Podocarpus National Park, just below the páramo
(Photos by Narca)

This western part of the park is often misty, too, and we spend much less time here, but it's a very worthwhile region to explore.

We can't leave Podocarpus National Park without showing you a Podocarpus tree, South America's only native conifer (though it looks nothing like our more familiar pines and spruces).

Podocarpus tree

Podocarpus foliage

The Plushcap is a bamboo specialist, living at high elevations in the Andes. For a long time it confounded taxonomists, and was placed in its own family of passerines. Recently, ornithologists have moved it to the tanager family.


We are most interested in finding a small, high-altitude hummingbird, the Neblina Metaltail, but weather conspires against us. We do see several Glowing Pufflegs, another beautiful hummer, as well as Pale-naped Brush-Finches and lots of Band-tailed Pigeons, flying over the crest.

Once again, páramo flowers are lovely.

Melastomes are easy to spot by their leaf venation

Another beautiful flower of the páramo

Leaving the wind-buffeted, misty heights, we descend toward Vilcabamba, but before we leave the park a few other species catch our eye.

A migrant Broad-winged Hawk, here on its wintering grounds

Perky Cinnamon Flycatchers are fairly common

A very striking pierid, Catasticta susiana, one of the dartwhites