Saturday, March 6, 2010

Zaruma to Macará

Up again at 5:00 with breakfast at 6:00. Since we were moving on to another hotel today we 80-stepped our bags to the lobby. Claire’s physical disposition still was a bit unsettled but she looked and felt much improved.  Nothing like modern medicine!
Following a continental breakfast, we loaded up and headed toward Macará but not without first stopping again at the Buenaventura preserve, this time to explore higher elevation where we might find El Oro Parakeets. Discovered in 1980, this Ecuadorian endemic resides in a very limited range measuring approximately 100 km high (north to south) by 5 to 10 km wide. Current population estimates range from 250 to 999 birds. It feeds on various fruits, breeds communally and when seen usually occurs in flocks of 4 to 15 individuals. A major threat to its existence is deforestation. Finding this bird was by no means going to be a slam-dunk! Also, Psittacidae tend to be nomadic so any sighting may just be a quick flyover.
A light and intermittent drizzle fell as we departed Zamura but by the time we reached Buenaventura the rain had relented and the skies looked promising (although one never ventured far without taking an umbrella). The bus pulled off the main road and followed a two-rut country lane. Eventually we disembarked and walked the road through what appeared to be abandoned pastures bordered by scattered woodlots. Birds we began to pick up included: Gray-backed Hawk, Rufous-headed Chachalaca (distant looks), Eared Dove, Golden-olive Woodpecker. A Golden-headed Quetzal was finally coaxed out into the open for everyone to see.
Occasionally the distinctive chattering of parakeets was heard. Flyovers included Bronze-winged Parrot and Red-faced Parakeet. During one such flyover José shouted “El Oro!!” A small flock – specks through our bins – flew over and settled in a distant stand of trees. Scoping the birds didn’t improve our views much, but shortly, a second small flock of parakeets appeared along with a few Bronze-winged Parrots. The parrots kept moving on but the parakeets settled. This time much closer. The scope was swung around and finally we got some good looks at the El Oro Parakeet. In fact during the time we were observing them, two pair copulated!  With luck there would be an increase in the population!
Continuing on, a commotion in a dense stand of trees caught out attention. Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners were mobbing an owl. The owl was buried pretty well in the foliage and it took a lot of jockeying around of scopes, combined with José venturing into the underbrush, to finally determine that this was a Mottled Owl. Also attracted by the commotion was a Collared Trogon who showed itself very close to the road giving everyone excellent looks.
More birds found included: Azara’s Spinetail, Loja Tyrannulet, Smoke-colored Pewee, Black Phoebe, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, Chiguanco Thrush, Pale-vented Thrush, a very skulky Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Slate-throated Whitestart, Golden Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Swallow Tanager, Highland Hepatic Tanager, Common Bush-Tanager, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, Rufous-collared Sparrow. But the El Oro Parakeet was by far the catch of the day!
Judging the distance we had to travel from our starting point at Zamura and our destination Macará, our time on the bus today would be considerable. “Bus time” created a variety of opportunities. Napping to recover from short nights was popular. Other activities included, but were by no means limited to: birding out the windows, catching up on note taking, logging bird sightings, checking bird IDs (reviewing color plates from the Birds of Ecuador guide), snacking, gawking out the windows (ever changing scenery was usually spectacular), chatting amongst each other, and wondering when the next potty stop might occur.
Ah. Potty stops. While traveling from point A to point B a potty stop usually took place at a roadside gas station. Restrooms in gas stations are far different from what we encounter in the U.S. First, the emphasis was very much on the "public" part of "public restroom." It wasn’t unusual to find a men’s urinal right next to a women’s stall with no outer screening or barrier. At least the women’s stalls had doors. Toilet paper wasn’t regularly offered (one could insert the word “never” to best describe the lack paper products in general) in women’s restrooms. Collecting paper napkins from box lunches became quite popular among the ladies (specially for peeing while on a birding hike which presented its own set of privacy challenges). Men were far less inconvenienced.
Purchasing a roll of toilet paper at a store helped but one had to remember to grab some off the roll or the whole roll when heading to a public restroom. For the purpose of polite decorum I shall avoid any and all discussions about the levels of cleanliness found lacking in most of our gas station relief stops.
Road construction projects presented another level of challenge (specially when factoring in one’s need for a potty stop). It was not unusual to encounter long lines of backed up traffic waiting to pass through a narrow or one-way stretch of road. Entrepreneurial locals used such traffic backups to hawk bottled water and snacks including nuts, fruits, breads and candy. Not at all uncommon in the Andes, road delays were also caused when crews needed to clear debris from mud or rockslides. Watching out the front window of the bus I marveled at the amount of debris from recent rockslides that our driver had to maneuver through and around, often times on dangerously narrowed mountain roads. Looking over the edge was not for the feint of heart. Through it all, Niko performed an admiral job keeping us safe and sound.
With a box lunch stop and a few gas station pit stops thrown in, we eventually reached Macará, a well-known border-crossing town on the southern border between Ecuador and Peru. It was well after dark and we had endured a lot of “bus time”. Similar to the Hotel Roland, the Santigyn Hotel offered no evening meals so we first stopped at D’Marcos, a local bar restaurant. The bar was on the first floor and the restaurant located upstairs. Mercifully, the food wound up being greatly improved over the last eatery in Zamura.
Refreshed with food and drink, we re-boarded our bus. Macará was not a large town but its narrow streets seemed to feel as though the town went on forever. Or maybe it was the lateness of the hour. One could easily have missed the front door to the hotel as it blended in with all the other store fronts. The lobby was barely large enough to turn around in but at least we didn’t have 80 steps to traverse down to our rooms. Instead they were located upstairs. There was no elevator (although at this point I probably would have avoided using one). Thankfully a few young fellows appeared to help haul luggage.
While food choices and options had (dare I say dramatically?) improved, our accommodations had sunk to a new low. Our room lacked a window. It contained three single beds. A ceiling fan provided air movement with two settings: off and turbo-prop. Our bathroom was shall we say “constrained” but it faired better than Steve and Rita’s where they had to sit sidesaddle on their commode. We would be spending the next three nights in the city. Or the “seedy”.
One had to bear in mind that this was, after all, a birding adventure. We would not be spending much time at the hotel. We were simply using Macará as a central jumping off point to access prime birding habitats. Fortunately everyone maintained a sense of humor, which was key to our continuing sanity when it came to accommodations.