Monday, March 15, 2010

Podocarpus and the Airfield

Speaking of owls, early in the morning two were calling. They sounded close to Richard’s cabin, up the hill from our cabaña numero cuatro. Richard and José ID’d them as Band-bellied Owls. A few of us gathered on the trail in the dark to listen and watch but nothing doing. It would certainly be worth keeping an ear out that evening and early the next morning.
Candlelight in the cabin in the morning wasn’t an inconvenience. But it meant no power for hair driers. In fact, the use of hair driers, even when the power was on, was strongly discouraged. The system would not be able to sustain multiple driers running simultaneously. It should be noted that once we got going on a day of birding, that “hat hair” was the norm anyway. What difference did it make?
Breakfast behind us, we headed back to the Podocarpus trail head where we quickly found ourselves engrossed in listening for Amazonian Umbrellabird calls. Not too far along the trail we found a small flock of Gray-breasted Parakeets working a colpa or clay lick. Ingesting small amounts of kaolin-type clay is thought to help detoxify the poisons found in seeds of rainforest trees, which members of Psittacidae consume as part of their daily diet. The lick was at a bend in the trail making it difficult to get a straight line of sight for photos but we certainly had good looks through binoculars. This would be a good place to stake out early some morning for photos and video opportunities.
Standing at an overlook and watching the river valley below, a movement attracted José’s eagle eye. A male umbrellabird had glided in from across the valley and landed somewhere below the overlook but out of sight. We craned our necks as far over the edge as we dare. Another umbrellabird flew past – a female. We quickly retraced our steps along the trail to track the bird’s flight path into the jungle. José found the perched female and put up the scope for quick looks by the group. We managed more looks with binoculars as she flew further away. For such a large bird (crow-sized) they certainly were tough to see!
We encountered a few small foraging flocks of birds at various times, which caused us to backtrack depending on which way the flocks moved. Foraging flocks can be so large and move so quickly making it difficult to observe every species present. Fortunately these flocks were relatively small so José and Richard had more opportunity to call out species as they were seen. The trick was finding the same bird that the guide was calling. New birds on the day included: Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-breasted Spinetail, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Orange-crested Flycatcher, Pale-eyed Thrush, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Bronze-green Euphonia and Subtropical Cacique (both were heard only).
Some of the group ventured onto a side trail from the headquarters area to investigate a waterfall. The trail wound up being rather steep and narrow in spots with slippery rock but everyone managed to stay on firm ground. While we gathered at the waterfall a couple of hummingbirds appeared, moving rapidly as hummingbirds tend to do. There were two possibilities – a Green-fronted or a Blue-fronted Lancebill. Eventually José was summoned for a look and ended all speculation, pronouncing them to be Green-fronted.
As we headed back to the bus José decided to take a few alternate trails which presented more challenging elevation changes (i.e., steep ups and downs). One trail produced a Blue-rumped Manakin. The male is black with a shiny white crown and nape and a pale azure blue rump. Definitely a pocket-bird. We also pulled out a Sickle-winged Guan. Definitely not a pocket bird. Another new hummingbird for the day: Green Hermit. And a heard only bird: Yellow-cheeked Becard.
Back at the same clay lick a flock of White-eyed Parakeets appeared. Not nearly as nice looks as the Gray-breasted but pretty decent just the same.
By now the trail was full of flocking Carnival revelers headed toward some of the same water features we had visited earlier. Time to leave.
Lunch at the lodge was followed by another relaxing break. José wanted to try some roadside birding on the other side of Zamora in the afternoon. Richard elected to stay back at the lodge for some solo exploration of trails around the lodge.
Outside of Zamora the road was still pretty busy with Carnival festivities as many vehicles made their way to the Río Bombuscaro. Parallel to the road was a flat, straight and narrow length of pavement, which looked liked an airstrip. In fact, it was an airstrip. Niko pulled off onto a road leading to it. Although it looked as though it could still be in use (probably by the military), it didn’t appear to have been used for sometime judging from a other vehicles parked on the tarmac near houses that butted up to the airfield. We opted to walk.
By now the sun beat down pretty hard but birding turned out to be pretty good. Black Caracara, Little Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher (which we also saw at the lodge), Black-crowned Tityra, White-banded Swallow, Black-capped Donacobius, Thrush-like Wren, and Black-and-white Seedeater.
At the end of the runway was a small wetland. A big surprise was when a Blackish Rail jumped up and flew the length of the marsh. Attempts to show itself resulted in two Blackish Rails carrying on a “discussion” with one another but never out in the open where we could see them again.
Back on the bus we made another run through the Carnival gauntlet in Zamora. At one point the police stopped our bus to allow young people to board and solicit funds (by way of selling a T-shirt or a hat) aimed at supporting efforts to curtail drunk drivers. How could we resist? A few people bought T-shirts. A worthy cause.
José had apparently equipped himself with an aerosol can of “silly string” which he used to squirt unsuspecting pedestrians as our bus passed them. Some of his targets didn’t seem to mind – one young woman in particular was talking on her cell phone when she was doused. She never blinked an eye as she kept walking and talking as if nothing had happened. No doubt she would receive a bucket of water somewhere down the road to help wash it off.
Back at the Copalinga some of us gathered for a small impromptu party at Claire and Melissa's cabin. We also spent time speaking with a handful of other tourists who were also at the lodge watching the “Tanager Tree”. After dinner and our daily checklist, we settled up our bar bill  since the next morning we would pack up and head north toward the city of Cuenca. Another long period of “bus time” lay ahead. A very long time.