Wednesday, March 31, 2010


A bit of summing up…
All things considered our tour went well. No one ever likes long travel days to and from destinations. Specially flying anywhere these days. Air travel for us has become a necessary evil. We also seemed to have had a lot of “bus time” this trip compared to the last one. But if one is to experience as much of an area as possible in a compressed amount of time, travel is required. Road conditions seemed to be the biggest bugaboo: construction delays and occasional rockslides. Even with the best of roads, twisting, curving roads in mountainous regions are never traveled quickly. Having read a few Tropical Birding trip reports from other years, road conditions could have been a lot worse. We were never prevented from getting to where we needed to be.
Physically speaking, this trip seemed easier on the body than the 2008 tour. Were we in better shape for this trip? Hardly. We just didn’t have to deal with as much high elevation and the trails, while at times challenging, didn’t seem to be as taxing.
Accommodations in the beginning of the trip were a bit of a jolt compared to other tours. However we always had a dry roof over our heads and we never felt unsafe. Southern Ecuador isn’t as established for ecotourism as is the north. And psychologically, just imagine taking our tour itinerary in reverse and having Macará wind up at the end! In the end it all had to do with our expectations and how we managed them. Truth be known, some of the early overnights and meals will likely wind up being tall tale fodder for many years to come.
Our group dynamic was a good mix. No, make that a great mix. Everyone brought their individual brand of humor and perspective. And it helped that we had José again as our guide which provided continuity from 2008. Even when he remembered who we were from our last trip! His ability to pull birds out of seemingly thin air (or thick jungle) was nothing short of amazing. An added bonus was having Niko with us once more. He was superb. Anyone who has traveled in areas with challenging road conditions appreciated his skill and care for our safety. And of course his never-ending smiles.
As always it was a pleasure to be birding again with good friend Richard Garrigues. While José was our principle guide, Richard’s ornithological and natural history expertise essentially gave us two guides for the price of one! And besides, he's just a great all around guy!
As for the birds we did well. Not quite the count we had in 2008 but each trip is different. Extensive bus time may have cut down on the numbers a bit but the weather for the most part was very cooperative. There were only a few days I can recall when the weather had a noticeable negative impact on birding. But that's what umbrellas and rain gear are for, yes?
It's a given that not everyone on a birding trip will see every bird. But José made every effort for us to see as many as possible. Sometimes it was simply a matter of being at the right spot at the right time or getting on a bird before it disappeared. At best, jungle birding is always a challenge.
Overall the group saw or heard 508 species. Many new birds for Carol and me. I will shortly send out a file listing all the birds on the tour. Personally I picked up 148 life birds and my Ecuador country list now stands at 749. As for our memories associated with so many of the bird sightings? That list is endless.
Where are we headed next? Good question. There is certainly no lack of destinations.  Carol has been in contact with Tropical Birding about Columbia, which is just now opening up. Peru is a place that’s been on our radar for a while. There has also been some talk of birding Brazil. Even a possible return to northern Ecuador has been discussed.
We’re committed to Costa Rica in 2011 but being retired we are not now necessarily restricted to one trip per year. Or for that matter, traveling only in the winter months. There are compelling reasons for doing a Peru trip in July when the birding weather seems to be at its best. In the end it all boils down to time and money and maximizing both.
A caveat: This journal reflects our best recollection of how things unfolded. It is by no means all inclusive. Of course everyone will have their own recollections. Hopefully the journal will jog some of them. I know some of you took copious notes so by all means please let us know if there are glaring errors in timetable of events, the bird count, etc. Oh, yeah - and I'm still waiting for more photos...
Thanks to all of you for making our trip so pleasurable!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Puerto Lopez to Guayaquil and Beyond

Folks heard the Spectacled Owl again calling in the night but as with the night before, no luck at finding any.
As we gathered for breakfast, the chef eyed my ECO cap with an embroidered Gila Monster. I had purchased it during a stop in New Mexico specifically for our trip. Following my attempt to explain what a Gila Monster is, he rushed off to the kitchen and reappeared with a cap with the Mantaraya logo on the front and “Ecuador” printed across the back. Between our respective pigeons (English and Spanish) it seemed he wanted to trade hats. After breakfast we consummated the deal. I believe I edged slightly ahead in the bargain since I would be able to purchase another ECO hat online back in the States (I since have) and certainly would never be able to purchase a Mantaraya cap without a return trip to the lodge. Then again, he sure seemed pleased with the trade.
During our stay, staff was extremely attentive and flexible to our needs. Mediterranean style architecture, hospitality, and some much needed relaxation (as far as anyone can relax on a birding trip).
Having departed Mantayara Lodge we worked our way back south along the coast. North of San Pablo we stopped to inspect a series of salt ponds. More great looks at Andean Flamingos not only feeding but flying. Many various shorebirds including Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilts, and Snowy Plover. And we added another tern Richard picked out sitting on a post in the distance: Sandwich Tern.
Further along we made a roadside pond stop which produced Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Green Kingfisher and Masked Water-Tyrant. En route we had our box lunch, the last of the trip (what would we ever do?). José then offered us a couple of options for our return route to Guayaquil. One was to take a route similar to the one we had taken to reach the coast. The other route was more direct with far less opportunity to bird but would put us in Guayaquil by mid afternoon.
After nearly 18 days of birding, and recalling how rushed Jim and Naomi were our last late arrival at the hotel, the group opted to take the more direct route. As promised we rolled into Guayaquil around 2:00 p.m. Not a terribly birdy day but with plenty of time to spare before dinner, Marge and some of the group went for a walk while others relaxed in their rooms.
During our return trip José had fielded a phone call from Tropical Birding. His services were needed in northern Ecuador the next morning (another guide had fallen ill and needed to be replaced). José would not be able to join us for our final, final farewell dinner but he did join us long enough to complete our last run through of our daily checklist.
Following dinner we made it an early evening. We needed to be up in time to leave the hotel at 4:15 a.m. to make our flight connections. Steve and Rita were flying on a different carrier and would depart a few hours later which netted them a few more zzz's.
Niko met us bright and early with the bus to run us to the airport. While we faced a long day of flights, Niko was driving straight through to Quito! Our flight check-in went pretty smoothly although our flight was delayed a bit before being allowed to take off. We met with another delay with our connection in Panama. In Houston we had to claim our luggage then recheck it for our flight to McAllen. We barely had time to bid Marge, Melissa, and Claire farewell as they headed back to Wisconsin. We missed Risé who had to move quickly to catch her flight to Colorado.

After an unexpected gate change we then learned that our connecting flight to McAllen was running late. And, it had been overbooked. Continental asked for volunteers to take the next available flight. How many times had we sat in an airport and said to ourselves "Gee if we were retired with extra time we could pick up some easy flight vouchers." Well, we are retired so we opted for the next available flight which, as it turned out, arrived a hour later than our originally scheduled arrival in McAllen. The flight we had given up? It had landed fifteen minutes earlier - 45 minutes later than scheduled. We were met by our good neighbors Harvey and Gayle Pagel who drove us home. Finally got to bed around 10:00 that evening.
During the next few days following our return we heard from our fellow tour mates. It seems that Steve and Rita encountered longer delays and wound up arriving at O’Hare just in time to miss the last bus to Wisconsin. They wound up spending the night at the O'Hare Airport with, as Steve put it, “The homeless and the House Sparrows.” It turned out sleeping in a bit longer in Guayaquil paid off – they needed it!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Río Ayampe Road and Puerto Lopez

Some of the group had heard Spectacled Owls calling during the night although none were seen. Breakfast at the lodge was timed so that we ate with the sun coming up – and it was fully up when we departed for our morning of birding at Río Ayampe Road, just outside the coastal town of Puerto Rico. Our bus ride south took less than thirty minutes as we retraced some of our earlier route from the previous day.
The Río Ayampe forms part of the boundary between southwestern Manabi and northwestern Guayas provinces. The river doubles as a road although with the recent rains this option was not advisable. Even so, we might have walked the river. Several locals were walking the shallow waters, although their goal was not birding, it was fishing. We instead took to the high ground and walked a road along a ridge that at times overlooked the river. The upper road passed through a range of hills, much of it unprotected. This is an important breeding area for our main target bird of the day, the endangered Esmeraldes Woodstar.
Niko drove the bus up the road as far as he dared go. Within minutes of starting our walk an Esmeraldes Woodstar treated us to good looks. Whew! Seeing one of these rare and very localized hummingbirds was not a given.  Current population estimates are between 250-1,000 individuals. A tiny, beelike hummingbird, the male exhibited a beautiful elongated glittering pinkish-violet flared-at-the-sides gorget contrasted with a prominent white postocular stripe. Bright green back and deeply forked long tail rounded out its field marks.
Note: While everyone had copies of Ridgely’s The Birds of Ecuador (with the plates removed and rebound for ease of use), hardly anyone carried the plates while we hiked. About half way through the tour the hefty field guides were mostly left on the bus to review only during “bus times.” Except Naomi. Inevitably the cry would go out “Does anyone have their plates handy?” whereupon Naomi would always whip out her plates. Of course with Naomi and Jim no longer with us…
Humidity and heat built during the course of the morning as we trekked the road. We had occasional overlooks of the river and of the locals seining for fish or hunting crawfish. Birding was good as José picked out: Black-throated Mango, Northern Violaceous Trogon (heard only), Olivaceous Piculet, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Slaty Spinetail, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo, Shiny Cowbird as well as great looks at several other bird species seen earlier in the tour.
One new bird in particular, was very cooperative: White-backed Fire-eye. One was found near an army ant swarm. It and a mate that shortly appeared continued to call and display – great looks at the male’s diagnostic white patch just below the nape and fiery-red eyes of both sexes. We might have continued further up the road but it was nearing late morning and the road would not have allowed us to circle back to the bus. We doubled back instead.
Lunch at the lodge was followed by an unexpected turn of events: A shopping trip to Puerto Lopez thinly disguised as a birding trip. Some of the group wanted to browse the downtown shops but, those not wishing to shop, could checkout the beach for birds. Even more unusual: following lunch and preceding our trip to town was a period of “down time”. In other words pool or nap time. Carol and I opted for the pool and some cold beer.
The view from the veranda next to the pool looked out over the Pacific ocean with Isla de la Plata barely visible in the distance. Situated approximately 21 miles off the Ecuadorian mainland (adjacent to Machalilla National Park), this island has been called the “poor man’s Galapagos”, a reference to the high cost of visiting the real Galapagos. Although none of the bird species associated with the Galapagos are found on Isla de la Plata, it does support a small population of Waved Albatross. The boat ride to the island also offers a pelagic birding opportunity for ocean-going seabirds: petrels, tropicbirds, and boobies. Also a chance to see whales, green turtles, fur seals, and dolphins. Alas, we would not have the time to make such a trip. From the veranda our spotting scopes, while strong, were not that powerful as to pick out the birds mentioned above. We settled for the panoramic view, which truth be known, was a more than fair compromise.
The drive north to Puerto Lopez didn’t take long. Niko parked the bus along the main road that paralleled the beach. The womenfolk headed for the shops and the men for the beach. Not sure what to make of the gender split. Maybe if there was more time the guys might have spent time shopping (there was also talk of cold beer).
Not much shaking bird-wise on the beach. Large groups of Magnificent Frigatebirds were hounding the fishing boats. Numerous Blue-footed Boobies also joined in the hunt (several flew close by our vantage point). A lone Ruddy Turnstone was seen to be searching the gunnels of a small fishing boat. Laughing Gulls added to the mix with an occasional Kelp Gull flyby along with Gull-billed and Royal Terns. Try as we might we couldn’t pull out a Gray Gull. Probably seen further up the coast but there was some talk of us being seasonably too early or late to see them.
There was a lot of boat traffic coming and going – mainly fisherman. Small open boats fought the surf ferrying fishermen to and from their moored boast. Reminded me of watching lifeguard drills launchings into high surf along the California coastline.
The downtown was bustling with a form of motorcycle taxi (similar to a tuk-tuk) that we hadn’t previously seen on the trip. I associated their use more with Asian countries although they seem to be quite popular in parts of South America and Africa.
Back on the bus, instead of returning to the lodge we continued north to visit a portion of the Machalilla NP, Aqua Blanca. Although the park has some high elevations, this section was lowland dry scrub. Very dry. And owing to the time of day it was pretty dry of birds, too, although we managed Scaled Pigeon, several inquisitive Pacific Pygmy-Owls, and startled cattle and goats. A smattering of other species seen earlier (Red-eyed Vireos were out in the force) was seen.
Once again back at the lodge Ricahrd and I enjoyed some single-malt scotch on his veranda (with an even more panoramic view of the ocean) as we recounted many of the trip highlights (and talk of trips to come). Then more libations around the pool with the group and a relaxing dinner, complete with our daily bird checklist and as always, raucous table banter. Following dinner José assembled us at the top of the lodge’s driveway in the dark to search for Anthony’s Nightjar. One responded immediately to José's recording. It called and landed nearby in the grass (not out on the road as the very cooperative Blackish Nightjars at Podocarpus NP had done). It repeatedly teased us by calling nearby and with only the briefest of glimpses in José’s powerful spotlight.
Mosquitoes drove Carol and I back to the lodge – we foolishly were wearing shorts, sandals and t-shirts, which provided an expanse of exposed biting bug banquet (skin). The group continued on the driveway for a while trying for Spectacled Owls but nothing doing. (We heard them calling again later that night)
This was our last evening at Mantaraya. In fact this was the last full day of birding on the extension. We would spend the bulk of the next day returning to Guayaquil. We settled up our bar bill, packed for departure and turned in for the evening. Hard to believe our southern Ecuador adventure was coming to a close. But, we weren’t quite ready to throw in the birding towel just yet!