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!