Wednesday 29 October 2014

Gracias Ecuador Part 5

7th 0ctober 2014

Tigrillo Lodge -Yalare Highway- Tundaloma Lodge

Today we bade farewell to Tigrillo Lodge, Playa de Oro and the Rio Santiago whose wide green tumbling waters bore us rapidly downriver in Julio's canoe to Selva Alegre. I turned in the canoe and watched the rain forest for the last time as we rounded a bend in the river. It was gone and now just a memory as the landscape on either shore became trashed by humanity once more and the river traffic increased. We were no longer alone in mind and body and I yearned for just one more day in the isolation of Tigrillo Lodge

Selva Alegre is not the prettiest place or safest place to spend any amount of time so it was fortuitous that Rolando was already waiting for us as we stepped from the canoe for the last time. We loaded up the bags, cameras and optical equipment into the pickup making sure we had plenty of water and we were off, driving up the dirt road from the river's edge and joining the tarmac road to take us to the Yalare Highway. Just at the end of the town we came to an army roadblock and were abruptly stopped. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and wielding AK47's told us to get out of the car. They were civil but quite rough and searched the vehicle thoroughly, unceremoniously rifling through our bags looking for drugs or contraband. Satisfied we posed no threat we were free to go. A strangely upsetting episode and although Dusan and Rolando seemed fairly relaxed I almost felt violated by the close proximity of guns and the latent violence they threaten.

Still my mind was soon taken off this by the sight of a Plumbeous Kite sat by the roadside. We got out to scope it and two locals wandered over curious as to what we were doing.We invited them to look through the scope and one was fine with it but the other I think thought we were practising some form of witchcraft as he just could not comprehend how the bird could look so close in the scope and looked really worried. We take so many things for granted that it is only on encountering events such as this that you realise just how different the world is to other people. 

This part of Ecuador was one of the poorest and most lawless of the areas we were to pass through, predominantly of African ethnicity, so we were very much on our guard and sometimes Dusan suggested it would be best to lock the doors of the pickup as we passed through the small impoverished villages with their ramshackle houses and shacks lined up hard against the road and selling whatever they could to try and earn some money to keep themselves for another day.

Roadside shop which often doubles as a home - so poor are some of the people
I was also still feeling the effects of an upset stomach so was refraining from eating which did not make me feel that great but if necessary we could stop by the roadside away from the villages for a banyo or three! We drove on and were heading for a road, yes a road called theYalare Highway on which to go birding. It seems a contradiction in terms but the road runs through a National Park called The Reservas Humedales de Yalare - at least I think that is what Dusan told me. The point is that the National Park has been invaded by illegal settlers who have stripped and felled the forest, selling the wood and now have only a wasteland left on which to try and grow some crops or create palm oil plantations to eke out a meagre living. 

So called National Park with palm oil plants replacing the cleared rainforest
Here again we encountered the age old dilemna that desperate people have to live somehow and if they have nothing and no hope, it is impossible to stop them by quoting rules and regulations. Frankly it is a disgrace that the Park has been allowed to be ruined but that is down to the Government and various levels of bureaucracy and plain simple corruption. The brutal truth is that the forest is irrevocably gone now so there is nothing that can be done and it seems perverse to still call it a National Park. The only reasonable habitat left was a small strip of forest only metres wide running along each side of the Yalare Highway hence our reason for birding the road, simply because that is the only area left of the park that has any habitat worth looking at.

The Yalare Highway is a tarmac road, on which cars, huge trucks and buses hurtle up and down at a frightening pace. Speed limits are in name only and there are no police checks or anything else to curb speed as far as I could ascertain. 

The Yalare Highway with the trees we birded, along the length of the road
We birded the road by riding, stood up in the back of Rolando's pickup behind the cab and everytime we saw or heard anything good a tap on the cab roof would bring Rolando to a stop. Fortunately there were not too many vehicles using the road so it was not so dangerous for Rolando to stop by the roadside. Frankly, we were not expecting too much from the Yalare Highway but as it turned out we found some very good birds indeed that were totally unexpected but this was probably because no one else had thought there was the remotest chance of there being good birds along the road. They were wrong.

Our first target was to see two other species of my now firm favourites - puffbirds - and it did not take long before we had seen both Black breasted Puffbird and then the much scarcer Pied Puffbird. The former were sat like two sentinels in a Cecropia Tree whilst the latter had to be called in with a tape of its call but once it had arrived it sat for ages, high in a tree before once again flying off.

We moved further down the road and came to a newly occupied illegal settlement with a very nice looking area of mud and water. We talked to the owner, remembering that this was a relatively lawless area and he happily gave us permission to look over the land he had presumably appropriated. Let's face it what's the point of making a big issue about the law as it would not solve anything and we could well get into more trouble than we could handle if we pushed it too far.

The muddy pool held a lot of Wattled Jacana's, their black and chestnut plumage looking very exotic amongst all the mud and their incredible spidery legs and feet imparting them a curious elegance as they tripped across the muddy margins. Some Shiny Cowbirds were feeding in a drier area and two each of Solitary Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper probed the wetter parts, accompanied by a handful of Masked Water Tyrants.

Wattled Jacana - adult

Wattled Jacana - juvenile

Least Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
We moved on and found a Slaty tailed Trogon on the other side of the road and then we finally found what we were really hoping and looking for, a feeding flock of small passerines. 

Slaty tailed Trogon c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Dusan was reeling off the different species at a bewildering pace when he suddenly stopped and excitedly told me he had a female Five colored Barbet in his scope. Sure enough in a couple of seconds I was at last looking at this much wanted species, feeding not many feet above my head with passing trucks and buses bringing a surreal atmosphere to the experience. We had missed out on the barbet so far and frankly this was the last place we expected to find it but here it was. Trucks and buses continued to thunder past us but we were now impervious to the noise, fumes and possible danger and focused solely on this much desired bird. It then got a whole lot better when Dusan found the male nearby, eating some form of white berry from a fruiting tree. What a cracker it was with its crimson red crown, black face mask, black upperparts, white breast and yellow, black spotted flanks. It certainly put the female to shame. 

Five colored Barbet c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Dusan told me that to find one here was unheard of as they are birds more of untouched forest and very rare. Here we had two right in front of us. Dusan played the tape of its call and the male almost did a double take at the sound. He immediately stopped feeding, faced us, lowered his head and inflating his whole neck and upper breast, produced the most extraordinary sound, jerking his head forward and making a series of deep hollow whooping notes. We watched it calling and Dusan even took some video. What a great find. Later we even managed to find another male.

So it went on as we went down the road and found good bird after good bird. Even the regular passing of hurtling vehicles had their benefits as with  each one passing it created a welcome breeze to cool us in the hot humid conditions

My errrant stomach now interrupted proceedings. I needed a banyo dos badly, in fact as it transpired I needed several so we took a side road and I disappeared into the undergrowth for quite some time to relieve myself whilst Dusan and Rolando diplomatically checked out a bird flock feeding on the other side of the road. Relieved and with my stomach at last beginning to return to normal I rejoined them and we birded up and down the road. Some Smooth billed Ani's entertained us for a while, their preposterous bills and ugliness counteracted by their magpie like charm and antics although they are more closely related to cuckoos

Smooth billed Ani
The habitat got progressively more denuded as we went down the road so we eventually turned back and headed for the Yalare Highway once more. Just before we got there we encountered two young boys carrying a plank of wood on their shoulders to which was attached by a length of twine about its leg a Black breasted Puffbird. 'Dusan tell Rolando to stop. Can you ask them what are they going to do with the puffbird?' Rolando stopped and Dusan spoke to them and they said they were going to keep it as a pet. I was determined to rescue it.

A quick conversation ensued between myself and Dusan. 'Ask them how much they want for it Dusan.' Dusan translated my request into Spanish and one of the boys shrugged. 'Tell him I will give him five dollars for it.' The boy agreed and we settled on $5.00 which was nothing to me but a fortune for the boys. I handed over the money and they released the bird from the twine and handed it to me. I held it for a photo and it sunk its formidable bill into my finger. Yeeeow! I prised its bill off my flesh and then opening my palm let it lie in my hand, before, after a few seconds it flew strongly back to the trees and freedom. Dusan delivered a lecture about how it was illegal to catch birds and the boys promised not to do it again.Who knows if they will keep their word, probably not but at least the puffbird got another chance.

'Rescued' Black breasted Puffbird
We resumed our motorised prowl of the roadside. The next good find was a scarce American Pygmy Kingfisher lurking below the leaves of some overhanging bushes above a pool in the wide ditch by the roadside. A quick look at it and a volley from the camera and then it was gone

American Pygmy Kingfsher
Further along we stopped to watch a Striated Heron feeding quietly in another area of water and mud but across the road a pair of Tropical Gnatcatchers were getting very excited. Crossing the road I 'pished' them which had spectacular results as both birds virtually flew up to me in their anxiety, flitting excitedly around me as I admired them from my perilous position by the roadside.

Tropical Gnatcatcher
What a day we were having but it was sadly drawing to a close. Such an incongruous situation in which we found ourselves, encountering good bird after good bird by the side of a main road. A snow white Black tipped Cotinga and a couple of  Purple throated Fruitcrows completed the day before we headed for Tundaloma Lodge where we were to spend one night.

Tundaloma Lodge was, just as had been all our accommodation up to now, devoid of visitors. Dusan told me an alarming tale relating to the Lodge demonstrating how lawless this area had become. Apparently the owners went away for a week's vacation and on coming back found all the big trees on their land ringed with paint and numbers.They asked the local village what was going on and were told point blank the trees were going to be felled as the destitute villagers wanted the money for them and if the owners did not like it they would be threatened with their lives. Such is the lack of protection or upholding of any law in these parts the owners of the lodge had no choice but to accede to the villagers demands. The question remains what will the village do once all the trees have gone and the money spent.There is no long term plan just a hand to mouth existence and the fear is the village will then fell the smaller trees until the Lodge has nothing worth keeping and no tourists will come.The authorities seem powerless or unwilling to act.

So it was just us in a rather forlorn Tundaloma Lodge and soon I was luxuriating in a spacious room with a hot shower. Pleasantly refreshed I walked from my room up a path illuminated by my head torch to the main eating area. A large stone by the entrance door moved and revealed itself to be not a door stop but the largest toad I have ever seen. Presumably it was hanging around here to snaffle any insects attracted by the kitchen lights. A huge moth the size of my hand beating against the kitchen window may have already been in its sights. 

I joined Rolando and Dusan in the dining room and not without some trepidation I decided it was time to test my digestion and see if I was finally free of my stomach bug. The food we were served was superb so it was no hardship to put my stomach to the test and the results I am pleased to report were positive, in fact so positive I felt emboldened to go owling with Dusan after dinner. 

We set off into the night but drew a blank - again. We heard a distant Crested Owl, got within inches of a Pauraque sat on the  ground in the light of our head torches and found another South American Woolly Opossum high up in a tree but that was it. Sometimes you just have to accept that it is not going to happen and be philosophical about matters so we returned to our rooms and a night's sleep.

Sadly the expected night's sleep was interrupted by one of the dogs that prowl the grounds for security, barking for most of the night and from what sounded like just outside my room. At one point it seemed it was in a fight with something in the surrounding forest and sleep was impossible. I switched on the light to read and finally fell asleep in the early hours from sheer exhaustion.

Dusan complained to the owner the next morning who was very apologetic and told us the dog was newly acquired and needed training. Considering the story Dusan told me about the villagers threats I could understand why the dogs were necessary and was not unsympathetic to the owners of Tundaloma Lodge.

8th October 2014

Tundaloma Lodge - Carondelet- Durango - AWA Ethnical Reserve - Hacienda Primavera

After a great breakfast of scrambled eggs we set off, still in darkness, flushing Pauraques from the dirt road until we joined the tarmac road and climbed steadily upwards heading for a location where we hoped to see another Choco endemic, a Golden chested Tanager. Sadly the weather had other ideas and as we ascended we found ourselves in low cloud with visibility virtually down to a few metres. It was no good and the cloud was not going to disperse in the foreseeable future. So plan B came into operation and we descended back below the cloud base and decided to bird a random road that looked to be surrounded by some reasonable habitat. 

Again Dusan counselled caution as to leaving the pickup suggesting we only got out of the pickup outside of any habitation, just in case. This seemed to work well and we slowly drove down the road birding as we went. A Cinnamon Woodpecker, a male Western white tailed Trogon, a couple of White tailed Kites kept us happy and a scarce but sensationally gorgeous male Scarlet thighed Dacnis gave an all too brief view of a vivid combination of turquoise blue and velvety black while we awaited the cloud base to rise.

Cinnamon Woodpecker c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Cinnamon Woodpecker
Western White tailed Trogon
We went back to try again but the cloud still persisted. Dusan told Rolando to take a steep stony track descending down the hillside. It was very steep and I wondered whether this was a wise decision as the stony surface was wet and slippery. Rolando must have thought the same and tried to reverse but the tyres just slipped on the wet stones and we had no choice but to continue downwards at a very steep angle. Dusan got out and walked further down the track and indicated there was a bend and a slight space where it might be possible to turn the vehicle. We descended further and Rolando came to a halt and Dusan indicated to me that we would bird further down the ever descending track whilst Rolando tried to turn the vehicle.

We set off in high heat and humidity despite the mist and cloud and the birding went really well but we went on for a long way. In fact the birding was so good that Dusan told me he was going to include this track in any future birding tour itinerary. I kept thinking in the back of my mind it's all very well going downhill but we will have to come back up this very steep incline sooner or later. We were caught up by a young man also coming down the track carrying an enormously heavy barrel of oil on his shoulders. He must have walked for miles with it and seemed glad of a chance to rest and talk. Then he was on his way, with the oil apparently for the chain saws we could hear illegally devastating the forest lower down.

Eventually we turned and headed back up the track. It seemed miles and probably was, so engrossed had we been in birding on the way down and my body and soul screamed at me for water and to stop but if I did it would be hard to get started again. On and on we pounded up the uneven rocky surface until after what seemed an age, exhausted and steaming with perspiration we found Rolando and he had managed to turn the pick up to face back  up the hill. I looked up the hill and swallowed hard. It was ominously steep with uneven rocks and ruts, although the rocks had dried out somewhat from earlier. I had my doubts we would get out but Rolando thought different. We loaded the back of the pick up with large rocks to give some weight at the back and Dusan and myself were also instructed to sit on the sides of the pickup at the back for additional weight and to bounce up and down as Rolando gave it full revs and charged the bank. It was hairy and it was scary as we fishtailed up the rocky track, dreading losing momentum but we made it back to the top and onto the comparative safety of the tarmac road.

The cloud had now lifted and we went back to the area we had originally visited early in the morning. Here we had our boxed lunch provided by Tundaloma Lodge and then set off on foot down a wide muddy track to try and find a Golden chested Tanager. A few hundred metres along the track we came across the most enormous worm, all of eighteen inches long. It was in some distress so we put it back on some damp ground which it gratefully burrowed down into.

Worm -Ecuadorian size!
Not long after this we stopped at a spot that Dusan reckoned was good for the tanager and surveyed some large trees on the opposite side festooned with creepers and epiphytes in which a flock of tanagers were feeding. Despite their often bright colours they are hard to see as they slip amongst the tangles of vegetation and enormous branches of the trees. The first 'good' tanager we saw was not the expected Golden breasted but another Choco endemic tanager, a Blue whiskered Tanager which misleadingly was green all over with a  bright yellow rump and black face. Never mind it was quite beautiful as most of the tanagers are. After admiring this we waited some twenty minutes and there was our target, a Golden chested Tanager which was exactly as described, blue black all over with a huge golden breast patch. Quite exquisite. It hopped around in the tangle and then flew on into obscurity in some distant trees.

Golden chested Tanager
Mission accomplished we returned to Rolando and set off for Hacienda Primavera in the lower slopes of the Andes. First we needed petrol but only after a long drive did we come to the only petrol station for miles around and it was closed. Jobsworths seem to be in every country these days and we were told by an officious man in a ridiculously elaborate uniform that the garage was closed and would re-open in an hour.

So we retreated back into the town and took a turning off to the right which promised to lead us to the AWA Ethnical Reserve. We knew nothing about this reserve but as we had an hour to spare decided to give it a go. A bus was stopped in front of us blocking the road. Not so unusual but there seemed to be some problem with a large dog. Everyone waited patiently as a man, presumably the dog owner tried to push the dog into the luggage compartment below the bus. The dog needless to say was not happy about this but after some fuss it was manhandled into the space, the door shut on it and the bus and everyone else could go on their way.

We drove on and here we had quite a find. We stopped on a bridge over a rocky river and Dusan found what we at first thought were three Lesser Elaenia's in some trees by the road. According to Dusan these were however likely to be a split into a full species possibly called Narina Elaenia following work done on them by a German ornithologist called Rheindt. I took some photos for posterity's sake of a greyish flycatcher with a marked crest and two conspicuous wing bars. It was kind of nice to think we were some of the first to see this impending new species. Postscript. This bird was indeed split into a new species called Coopman's Elainea in 2016

 Lesser Elaenia - now split into Coopman's Elaenia since 2016
The hour was now up so we went back to the petrol station and yes, it was still not open. Jobsworth was going into overdrive, strutting around with bits of paper and basically getting up everyone's nose. We waited patiently and after about another thirty minutes, with a flourish he removed a piece of rope across the entrance and we were allowed onto the forecourt.

The pickup's fuel tank was now fully replenished and we set off up the valley, climbing steadily into the foothills of the Andes. An American Kestrel perched on roadside wires was a pleasant surprise as the air became cooler, the humidity bearable and the scenery sensational. We were now leaving the steamy heat, humidity and biting insects of the rain forest and climbing into sub tropical cloud forest. A very different habitat with a very different range of species. Higher and higher we went on a winding, twisting road the land falling away far below us into huge valleys but still with mountains towering above us.

We took another bend in the road and then almost doubling back on ourselves drove up a small sidetrack and into a small secluded car park. We had arrived at Hacienda Primavera. 

Hacienda Primavera. Thats more like it!
Warmly greeted by the staff we found we were again the only guests. My room was the most luxurious of the trip and had the most sensational view looking down from a great height into the valley stretching away below me to the distant mountains beyond.

View from my room
View from the terrace to the cloud forest
Blue and White Swallows were nesting underneath the eaves above my verandah and at least fifteen migrant Eastern Kingbirds sat in the top of a tree that reached up level with the roof of the building. 

Eastern Kingbird
I could almost lean out and touch them. I just stood on the verandah rejoicing and admired the view and the birds in the tree tops around the room. Apart from the kingbirds, a Yellow throated Woodpecker climbed up a branch whilst Lemon rumped and Blue Gray Tanagers fussed about in the foliage. I even had a chocolate on my pillow and a bottle of fresh water by my bed.

First priority was a hot shower and change of clothes.The laundry was free and so a pile of dirty washing was promptly delivered to the staff and remarkably it was back in two hours. I could hardly believe it. A clean pair of socks and tee shirt at last!

That night we sat down to a three course meal with the luxury of starched white table linen, candles and food that would be acceptable in any high class restaurant. I rolled into bed, clean, refreshed and full of good food and fell asleep to the roar of the river nearby, careering down the hillside, and the regular night time chorus of frogs and cicadas. If there is a heaven, then at the elevation we were now at in the Andes I was halfway there already.

Birds seen or heard 

h =  heard only
ec = Choco Endemic

Great Tinamou (h); Little Tinamou (h); Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Osprey; Hook billed Kite; Swallow tailed Kite; White tailed Kite; Plumbeous Kite; Roadside Hawk; Laughing Falcon; American Kestrel;  White throated Crake; Wattled Jacana; Solitary Sandpiper; Spotted Sandpiper; Least Sandpiper; Rock Pigeon; Scaled Pigeon; Dusky Pigeon (ec); Ecuadorian Ground Dove; Rose faced Parrot (ec); Blue headed Parrot; Bronze winged Parrot; Red lored Amazon; Squirrel Cuckoo;Smooth billed Ani; Crested Owl (h); Pauraque; White collared Swift; Lesser Swallow tailed Swift; White whiskered Hermit (ec); Green crowned Woodnymph; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Purple crowned Fairy; Choco Trogon (ec); Slaty tailed Trogon; Western white tailed Trogon; Ringed Kingfisher; American Pygmy Kingfisher; Black breasted Puffbird; Pied Puffbird; Orange fronted Barbet (ec); Five colored Barbet (ec); Stripe billed Aracari (ec); Choco Toucan (ec); Chestnut mandibled Toucan; Golden olive Woodpecker; Cinnamon Woodpecker; Lineated Woodpecker; Black cheeked Woodpecker; Guayaquil Woodpecker; Pacific Hornero; Slaty Spinetail; Plain Xenops; Black striped Woodcreeper; Russet Antshrike; Checker throated Antwren; White flanked Antwren; Dot winged Antwren; Dusky Antbird (h); Spotted Antbird (h); Immaculate Antbird (h); Chestnut backed Antbird (h); Stub tailed Antbird (h); Choco Tapaculo (h); Brown capped Tyrannulet; Gray Elaenia (h); Yellow bellied Elaenia; Coopman's Elaenia; Olive striped Flycatcher; Black capped Pygmy Tyrant (h); Black headed Tody Flycatcher; Yellow margined Flatbill; Northern Tufted Flycatcher; Black Phoebe; Long tailed Tyrant; Masked Water Tyrant; Rufous Mourner (h); Social Flycatcher; Rusty margined Flycatcher; White ringed Flycatcher (h); Streaked Flycatcher; Piratic Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Snowy throated Kingbird; Eastern Kingbird; Cinnamon Becard; One colored Becard; Masked Tityra; Black crowned Tityra; Black tipped Cotinga; Purple throated Fruitcrow; Red capped Manakin (h); White bearded Manakin; Green Manakin; Red  eyed Vireo; Lesser Greenlet (h); Dagua Thrush; Gray breasted Martin; Blue and white Swallow; Southern Rough winged Swallow; Bay Wren (h); House Wren; White breasted Wood Wren (h); Southern Nightingale Wren (h); Tawny faced Gnatwren (h); Tropical Gnatcatcher; Slate throated Gnatcatcher; Bananaquit; Purple Honeycreeper; Blue Dacnis; Scarlet thighed Dacnis; Scarlet and white Tanager (ec/h); Thick billed Euphonia; Orange bellied Euphonia; Fulvous vented Euphonia; Gray and Gold Tanager; Emerald Tanager; Golden hooded Tanager; Blue whiskered Tanager (ec); Golden chested Tanager (ec); Blue gray Tanager; Palm Tanager; Lemon rumped Tanager; Lemon spectacled Tanager (ec); Dusky faced Tanager; Tawny crested Tanager (h); Yellow green Bush Tanager (ec); Buff throated Saltator; Black winged Saltator; Blue black Grosbeak; Blue black Grassquit; Variable Seedeater; Yellow bellied Seedeater; Black striped Sparrow; Scarlet rumped Cacique; Chestnut headed Orependola; Shiny Cowbird;

Central American Woolly Opossum

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