Thursday 16 October 2014

Gracias Ecuador Part 1

Dedicated to Dusan Brinkhuizen  the finest birder I have had the pleasure to encounter

I have long wondered about South America and what it must be like to visit a continent with such huge countries and such a wealth of bird species. Where to go in this vast continent was the next question and in the end, for no particular reason apart from conversations with other birders, I decided on Ecuador.

Researching on the Internet I opted to place my faith in the oldest bird tour company in Ecuador, Mindo Bird Tours and signed up for their Choco Endemics Tour. The Choco Biogeographic Zone is one of the world's most endemic species rich areas. It is home to untold numbers of orchids, frogs, trees, mosses, butterflies, moths and over 700 species of bird of which 62 are endemic to the Choco. Sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean it is a narrow strip of land ranging from sea level to some 4000m elevation. The Choco has become increasingly fragmented due to commercial pressures for land and was formerly a huge area of tropical rain forest stretching along the western edge of Ecuador and going on up into western Colombia. I say 'was' advisedly as the Choco forest is now only 2% of what it formerly was, the reason being a familiar tale of destruction and decimation by logging companies and illegal settlers. Even the 2% left is under threat and it is all very depressing. Within the Choco forest, as I said, there are a number of bird species endemic to this particular habitat and area, and to be found nowhere else in the world and it was these, especially, that I went to see as well as the wealth of other species present there. 

The Choco forest does, as previously mentioned also extend well into western Colombia but no one knows what is happening there as the southwestern part of Colombia is currently a 'no go area' and far too dangerous to visit due to the presence of FARC guerillas, drug cartels and paramilitaries.

So it transpired, after many emails and much organisation, I found myself being dropped off by my wife at a dull and dank Oxford Bus Station at 5.30am on Sunday 28th September to catch the bus to Heathrow Airport. My journey to Ecuador had begun.

Officialdom knows no borders or reason and is one of the things that makes modern day travel so wearisome and despite having a ticket to get on the bus, identification in the form of a passport or driving licence was also demanded. The driver duly satisfied, I was allowed on the bus and slumped into a seat to fall asleep and awake in a cold dawn as we approached Terminal Three at Heathrow Airport.

I was booked on American Airlines via Miami where I had to change planes for my onward connection to Quito. I considered three hours transit time at Miami adequate but mentioning this to other travellers to South America I was advised that Miami was a nightmare and three hours might not be enough. The problem is, that although I was only transiting the USA and had no intention of entering the country, I still had to go through US immigration and customs as part of their security system before checking in for my flight to Quito. It was too late to do anything about it by the time I found all this out so I resigned myself to fate and no little hope that things would work out.

I approached the American Airlines check in desk at Terminal Three and presented my booking form. The nice young man on the desk told me my flight was delayed by two hours. My heart sank. This would give me only an hour to get through the awaiting prospective hell of Miami. I told him I had to be in Quito that night as my birding tour began at 7.30 the next morning. There is only one flight a day to Quito from Miami and I just could not miss it. I had to be on that plane. He was very helpful and tried to get me transferred to British Airways but they were full. Next we tried other connections from Miami to Quito which involved no less than another two flights on an airline I had never heard of via Bogota in Colombia and would get me to Quito at midnight rather than seven in the evening. He booked me on the flights as a backup but I decided to stick to my original itinerary and hope the delayed flight would make up time flying across to the USA.

A pleasant enough flight got me to Miami nine hours later, having made up thirty minutes on the way. I now had an hour and a half to get my flight to Quito but various official hurdles were lurking ready to prevent this. First was US immigration. I was off the aircraft in double quick time and ran for the queue. The lines of frustrated passengers looked immense but seemed to be moving. Twenty tense minutes later and I was in front of a surprisingly pleasant immigration officer who examined my documents. Happy with this he told me I then had to have my photo taken and both hands had to be placed on a machine presumably for fingerprints. Honestly. I was however free to go once this was achieved. Next I had to collect my suitcase. It seemed to take an age to come up on the carousel but eventually there it was. I hauled it off the carousel. Now where? Yep, another line for US Customs. I had completed my customs form declaring I was not intent on infesting the USA with strange plants, vegetables or any other life forms known to man, so just stood and waited in mute frustration for my turn. A sniffer dog and his handler patrolled up and down the queue but found nothing. It was my turn with the Customs Officer. Five minutes of questions as to why I was going to Quito, not that it was any of his business and I was offhandedly dismissed and free to go. I ran, weaving through other passengers following the signs for connecting flights. Yet more delay as another official demanded to see my boarding pass and yet another placing strips of paper on my palms and feeding them into a machine. DNA? Who cares. I was free to go. I joined another line to put my bag through the screening machine. A friendly guy called me out of the line. 'Just a routine check sir. Where are you going?' 'Quito in Ecuador'. I advised him 'Who are Ross County FC?' he enquired. I was wearing my Ross County FC sweatshirt. I explained they were a football team, sorry soccer team in the north of Scotland. 'Hey you guys are independent now'. 'Err, no it went the other way'. I really did not need this conversation as time was running out fast. He let me go with a cheery wave. 'Maybe next time' he called. 'Yeah thanks, see ya'. I got through baggage screening thankfully without any further interruptions and dashed for the flight departures board, There was my flight. 'Now boarding Gate D49'. I followed the directional signs down the immense concourse - twenty minutes to departure time. Could I really make it? I joined another guy also running, sweat pouring down his face, his shirt soaking. 'Where you going buddy?' he asked  'Quito'. 'What Gate?'  'D49, what about you?' 'Tallahassee Gate D48'. We raced on in tandem and got to Gate D47 and the signs ran out. No! 'Hey buddy up these stairs'. We stumbled up the stairs. Signs appeared for Gates D48-50. Thank the Lord. 'See you buddy. Good luck' called my erstwhile companion and was gone. I careered up to the desk. Five minutes left. I had made it.

Four hours later and the orange lights of Quito, 2800m above sea level and a UNESCO World Heritage Site was spread across the foothills of the Andes like an inverted firmanent as the plane descended. Another frustrating wait in a long line to check my bags out of the airport and there was Juan Carlos patiently waiting to take me to my hotel. I had been travelling twenty two hours and frankly was in a daze of cultural and emotional turmoil. It's not so physically exhausting travelling by plane but mentally it is such a roller coaster having to contend with all the rules, regulations and officialdom one now encounters to get anywhere in the world. Finally, at last, I sank onto the bed of my hotel room in downtown Quito. Tomorrow the adventure would begin.

29th September 2014

Quito to Rio Canande Camp

I looked out of my hotel window and gained my first sight of Quito in daylight. The altitude was giving me a mild headache but I drank lots of water as advised and it went away.

My bedside phone rang at 0700 and reception said that Dusan Brinkhuizen was downstairs awaiting me. One person's luck is another's bad fortune, as I should explain that no one else had signed up for the Choco Endemics Tour but Mindo decided to run the tour anyway so in fact I had a guide and driver all to myself  which was a huge slice of good fortune.

Dusan is a thirty year old Dutch birder who is married to an Ecuadorian and has lived in Ecuador for the last nine years, building himself a reputation as one of the finest if not the best birder in Ecuador. Another major piece of good fortune for me. Like me he is a keen twitcher and it transpired he had googled me and found my blog so knew what I was about. It seemed we would get on famously and any concerns Dusan had about my willingness to indulge in dawn to dusk birding were soon allayed which fired us both with enthusiasm. Dusan has the nickname 'The Birdinator' as his intense and restless energy in the search for birds has had many a client flagging but for me it was a challenge to be risen to and enjoyed.

I checked out of the hotel, we took all my gear outside and I was introduced to Rolando our driver, a very kind, nice person and incidentally as I learnt on our travels a very good observer of birds. We set off for Canande Reserve, heading out through the Quito traffic and stopping at a bakers for some bread, rolls and pastries. The first bird I saw in Ecuador was an Eared Dove quickly followed by a Great Thrush both feeding on grass by the roadside. It was so exciting to know that virtually every bird I encountered would be new to me and a childish glee seized me when I  looked out of the car window at the passing countryside as we wound our way downwards on constantly winding roads from Quito's almost 3000m elevation to a lower elevation where the altitude caused less of a problem to my unaccustomed senses.The driving in Ecuador is not for the faint hearted as speed limits are rarely observed and speed cameras are apparently unheard of with the consequence that as one got into the more rural areas one could meet the relatively few cars, often coming the other way on your side of the road in an effort to dodge the many potholes, and overtaking on bends was far from an unusual occurrence in my experience, but I felt entirely safe with Rolando and his sturdy pickup. 

Our birding was to be done mainly in Esmeraldas Province in the northwest corner of Ecuador and one of the poorest and most deprived areas of Ecuador. The houses reflected the relative poverty, being square concrete breeze block constructions located on dusty, litter and rubble strewn plots or just plain wooden shacks of various shapes and sizes often raised above the ground by sturdy posts at each corner.

Everything is functional with little time for fanciful considerations such as gardens. There is no money. People are poor, many desperately so. Dogs, chickens and indeed people wandered across the road with impunity and the cars slowed and just drove round them. Small shops, open fronted, lined the roadside in villages and towns selling all manner of goods and food and everywhere was a riot of colour. Ecuadorians in these places have a particular passion for brightly coloured sports clothing and there is always a group of people, young and old, either laughing and talking by a street corner or just watching life go by.

Eventually we turned off the tarmac road and made our way down a bumpy pot holed dirt road making our first birding stop in the middle of nowhere. Quickly my list of lifers increased as Dusan identified a pair of Pacific Parrotlets sat on a telegraph post, a tiny Blue and White Swallow flitted past and a Variable Seedeater clung to a grass stem. More distantly a Giant Cowbird sat at the very top of a tree and a flock of thirty plus Black Vultures circled overhead. A little way up the road a pair of huge Guayaquil Woodpeckers with outrageous 'woody the woodpecker' red crests sidled up a large bare tree trunk and then my first toucans, two Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, at first invisible, calling raucously to each other but then finally found, sat in the very top of a tree. I have always wanted to see wild toucans with their outrageous bills and here they were.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan c Dusan Brinkhuizen
They behave very much like a jay just perching and peering around and are feared by smaller birds as like our jays they can be predatory.We drove on, the lush vegetation at the roadside almost overwhelming in its voluptuous bounty, no doubt due to the huge annual rainfall.

 The road led to a non descript village of various wooden shacks which presumably were homes.

Road signs were a sophistication too far here so we had to ask and found ourselves following a series of turns towards the Rio Canande where we needed to get a ferry across the river. It was now very hot and Dusan remarked on how much the landscape had changed for the worse since he was here some four or five years ago. Ominously we encountered two huge lorries with the sawn trunks of trees parked by the river and a buzz saw could be heard being put to use somewhere in the forest.

The ferry is owned by the logging company, principally to carry the lorries transporting the wood from the forest across the river but is also used by the local population and the road on the other side of the river is also constructed and owned by the logging company. It was a benefit to us but it also allows illegal settlers to access the forest where they set up home and clear their patch of land apparently without fear of reprisal from the logging company or the Government and thus it goes on and ever more of the forest is eroded.

The ferry and our vehicle plus some locals.Yellow wellingtons are very popular

Rio Canande
We crossed the river in five minutes, stopping on the other side to check for Slate-colored Seedeaters but were out of luck. Dusan played its calls but with no effect. The area we were now in was a known site for this rare species but has been much degraded so they might now be long gone. I should add that many of the birds we were to see were lured out by playing their song or calls and Dusan had a phenomenal ear for hearing birds call or sing as we passed by and the combination of the two brought us much success. 

However all was not lost as a Swallow-tailed Kite, its wings ragged and full of gaps due to its moult came very close above us mobbed by a Black Vulture. A pair of dapper Masked Water Tyrants, a sort of terrestrial flycatcher always found near water but with an uncanny resemblance to a wheatear both in behaviour and appearance, flitted around a flooded area.

Masked Water Tyrant
It was time to move on and we carried on in the heat and dust towards Canande Reserve stopping for lunch in some shade and eventually arriving mid afternoon.

Dusan (l) and Rolando (r) plus our vehicle

The road to Canande
Canande is part of the Jocotoco Foundation which has eight reserves scattered across Ecuador and covering in total 8000 hectares of prime forest and is dedicated to protecting areas of critical importance to the conservation of Ecuador's most endangered birds and the biodiversity associated with them. The reserves are home to over 800 species of bird of which over 100 are range restricted or endemic species and about 40 are globally endangered.They are also home to several rare mammals such as Spectacled Bears, Puma, Jaguars, Howler and Spider Monkeys. Canande Reserve itself is by far the best site for Choco endemics in Ecuador and currently there are plans to increase the amount of forest coming under its protection as the logging companies move right up to the borders of the reserve.

Destruction of the forest after the logging company have finished. Canande
reserve is just over the other side of the hill and a complete contrast to this.
The accommodation at Canande is basic but perfectly adequate and the rooms do have the benefit of an en suite bathroom of sorts as well as a nice verandah from which to observe the hummingbirds coming to the feeders hung in the trees in front.

'The accommodation block'
We wandered around exploring our new surroundings and tried out the newly constructed canopy tower which allowed us to observe the many birds feeding in the tops of the surrounding trees. We were the only people here as Rolando had left us to go back home and would return a couple of days later to collect us and take us on to our next destination. We spent some time in the canopy tower watching various birds coming to feed in the strange alien looking Cecropia Trees which were currently flowering. Lemon Rumped, Palm, Swallow and Blue Gray Tanagers visited the trees at various times but best of all and one species very much desired by me was a male Scarlet Chested Dacnis, a tiny jewel of a bird unbelieveably coloured in metallic blues of various hues and with a blood orange breast and piercing golden yellow eye. Our first Choco endemic species.

Scarlet breasted Dacnis c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Rusty-margined Flycatchers, big bulky birds, perched on the wires and tree tops as did a Snowy-throated Kingbird

Rusty-margined Flycatcher
Snowy-throated Kingbird

Flocks of Bronze winged Parrots, dumpy and raucous flew over and Dusan taped in a beautiful Rufous tailed Jacamar

Rufous tailed Jacomar
It began to rain so we retreated from the tower and stood on the balcony watching the hummingbirds frantically feeding. According to Dusan, just before dusk is always a good time to see them as the tiny mites stock up on calories for the night. They were impervious to the rain, zipping about in their frantic busybody way. We identified five or I should say Dusan identified five species; Rufous tailed Hummingbird, Purple chested Hummingbird, Purple crowned Fairy, White necked Jacobin and another Choco endemic, White whiskered Hermit. You hear them almost before you see them, a brrrring noise announces their arrival as their impossibly fast wing beats propel them through the air backwards, forwards and sideways at an incredible speed. I tried to photo them but it was nigh on impossible as the light was so dull

Purple-chested Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
To eat we went to the dining area a few hundred metres from our accommodation and right next to the trails that led into the cloud forest and there we had a delicious home cooked meal. I heard a tapping and looking out of the window and right next to it was another outrageously plumaged large woodpecker hammering away at the dry loose bark of a broken branch. It was a female Lineated Woodpecker. Dusan and myself filled out our bird list for today, a grand total of 71 species and all brand new for me. As we walked back to our rooms Howler Monkeys called evocatively, deep and distantly, in the forest around us before settling for the night. It was now pitch dark, the kind of deep velvet darkness that only comes in remote areas and like giant gloworms we guided our way back to our rooms with head torches.

Female Lineated Woodpecker
It rained all night, heavy tropical rain, warm and sweet as I lay and sweated inside my mosquito net and worried whether I had taken my daily malaria pill. The night was a chorus of sound, countless frogs groaned, squeaked and belched, using all octaves of the musical scale while cicadas added their not inconsiderable voice to the cacophony. Moths flopped onto the top of my mosquito net as I drifted off to dreamland, lulled by the frog serenade

Bird species seen or heard today

h = heard only
ec = Choco Endemic

Little Tinnamou (h); Black Vulture;Turkey Vulture; Swallow tailed Kite ; Double toothed Kite; Gray Hawk; Roadside Hawk; Variable Hawk; Rock Pigeon; Ruddy Pigeon; Dusky Pigeon (ec); Eared Dove; Pacific Parrotlet; Rose faced Parrot (h) (ec); Bronze winged Parrot; Mealy Amazon; White whiskered Hermit; White-necked Jacobin; Rufous-tailed Hummingbird; Purple-chested Hummingbird; Purple-crowned Fairy; Western white tailed Trogon; Broad billed Motmot (h);Rufous-tailed Jacomar; Pale mandibled Aracari (ec); Choco Toucan (ec); Chestnut mandibled Toucan; Lita Woodpecker (ec); Lineated Woodpecker; Black cheeked Woodpecker; Guayaquil Woodpecker; Pacific Hornero; Western Slaty Antshrike (h); Pacific Antwren; Sooty-headed Tyrannulet (h); Golden faced Tyrannulet; Southern-beardless Tyrannulet; Ochre bellied Flycatcher; Black headed Tody Flycatcher (h); Common Tody Flycatcher; Long tailed Tyrant; Masked Water Tyrant; Boat-billed Flycatcher; Rusty-margined Flycatcher; Streaked Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Snowy throated Kingbird; Cinnamon Becard; Black tipped Cotinga; White bearded Manakin (h); Great Thrush; Blue and white Swallow; White thighed Swallow; Southern Rough winged Swallow; Bay Wren (h); House Wren (h); Buff rumped Warbler; Green Honeycreeper; Scarlet thighed Dacnis (ec);Fulvous-vented Euphonia; Blue-necked Tanager; Swallow Tanager; Blue-gray Tanager; Palm Tanager; Lemon-rumped Tanager; Dusky-faced Tanager; Buff-throated Saltator; Blue black Grassquit; Variable Seedeater;Scarlet rumped Cacique; Giant Cowbird;

71 species - all new

By morning the rain had just about ceased. This region of Ecuador probably has the highest rainfall of anywhere in the world, some 16,000mm per year. This morning was to be my first venture into a proper pristine tropical cloud forest courtesy of Canande Reserve.

to be continued


  1. Welcome back to the UK Ewan. Enjoyed the post & memories of my visit to this part of Ecuador. Looking forward to future posts.
    Steve S

  2. Absolutely awesome