Friday, February 26, 2010

Return to Ecuador

From beneath Winter's Lovely White Cloak, Kim writes: Okay, so practically the entire staff at BSBO is in Ecuador right now on a birding trip with our friends at Tropical Birding. Since I've been to Ecuador twice, I volunteered to stay here and mind the office so that our Board would approve the trip for the rest of the gang. I felt really good about my decision. The people at BSBO are among the finest individuals I have ever met anywhere in the world. They work incredibly hard for little or no pay, and they absolutely deserve this fabulous experience.

But...Today I'm kind of bummed. The Tropical Birding guides have been posting some of the birds they've been seeing, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a tiny part of me (okay, so it's a moderately large part) that's wishing I was there too. I thought it would help me feel better to take all of you along with me on a trip back in time to our visit to Ecuador in February 2006.

Caution...the trip I am about to relate to you was our honeymoon.
This post may contain mushy, lovee-dovee, who-ha, huggee, kissee, stuff.

You have been warned! ; )

Okay, first things first:
My favorite food of the trip!

I know, right! ewww... It's hard to believe that something that looks this repulsive could taste so, slurpy, sticky, messy good! It helps to know that Passion Fruit starts with the gorgeous, Passion Flower.

Okay, now let's travel to the east slope of the Andes mountains to visit,
Cabanas San Isidro.

The enchanted trail to Cabanas San Isidro

The cottages were simple and beautiful.
But, in spite of the "nature" of our trip, we didn't spend much
time indoors; not with all the birds to see!

Like this handsome male Collared Inca

Next it was on to the Guango Lodge.

Guanga isn't far from San Isidro, in fact, its run by the same family. But there's enough of a change in elevation between the two lodges to result in a different cast of avian characters. That was just one of the many remarkably fascinating things about Ecuador: a slight change in elevation results in a significant change in the flora and fauna.

And, what does Guango have to offer besides a lovely setting, great food, and Torrent Ducks in the stream below the lodge? THIS...

After several heart pounding, eye-peeling, hand wringing, Kenn squeezing, praying to the gods of bizarre birds, minutes... the highly coveted and totally wicked-cool SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD shook up the the scene and all the birders gathered at the Guango feeders. I literally had to sit down when I finally saw this bird for the first time. It's like your brain can't wrap itself around the fact that super-stretched bill should belong to this tiny bird. It's nuts!

Well, actually it's flowers.
This flower to be exact...

The Sword-billed's bill shape makes more sense when you see this, doesn't it?!
This is the Datura flower, we encountered it in many locations during our trip. We found it at a range of elevations as well. Here's a closer look at this massively tubular botanical show-off.

Kinda makes you wish you had a 5 inch bill to jam up in there and
suck up all the goodies, doesn't it?! I'll bet it tastes like Tang.

Okay, let's leave Guango and head west back over the Papayacta Pass. We'll drive miles and miles on narrow twisting mountain roads, and eventually cross into the west slope of the Andes--where every inch of the terrain reminds you of what eyeballs were invented for--and arrive at the location where all my BSBO peeps are hanging out right now!

The stairway to heaven.

I'm convinced that Robert Plant must have visited Tandayapa Bird Lodge and the experience was so powerful that it gave birth to the famous Zeppelin tune.
This is where the BSBO staff is staying. They're probably sitting on the patio right now while swarms of hummingbirds entertain them.
Hummingbirds are definitely the stars of the show at Tandayapa.

Check this out! If you can ignore the irritating click of the camera's video action, listen to the sound generated by the sheer numbers of hummers...

The handsome, dashing, newlywed, Kenn Kaufman, on the patio at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Cloud Forest + Tandayapa Patio + Hummingbird Feeders...
Mind = Blown!

This is the supremely adorable Booted Racket-tail. Funny story... During our stay at Tandayapa this very high-strung, totally bird-crazed woman who had obviously rarely ever traveled, kept calling the Booted Racket-tails, "Racketed Bootlegs." hahaha... This went on for several days before anyone had the heart to correct her. Much fun was made (I'm sure) at her expense when she wasn't around. pssst...It was me. I still call them Racketed Bootlegs sometimes. I'm such a dork! : )

Another of my Tandayapa favorites,
the breath-taking, Violet-tailed Sylph.

Now let's head for...The AMAZON!

Deep within the Amazon rain forest , the Sacha Lodge requires a long day's journey to get to, including a ride in a small plane from Quito to Puerto Francisco de Orellana, locally known as Coca, an "exciting" ride through the narrow and very busy streets of Coca, and a two-hour boat ride down the Nappo River.
Once you arrive, it takes all of about 4 seconds to know the effort it took to get there was worth it. ---WOW!

Just one of the featured attractions at Sacha is the Canopy Walk
From the Sacha website: A new and much anticipated addition to Sacha's activities is our 940-foot (275-meter) long canopy walkway. At approximately 94 feet (30 meters) above the ground, imagine exploring the rain forest up in the treetops! This sturdy walkway is fixed to the ground by three metal towers for stability, and offers an unbelievable opportunity to spot dozens of animals and epiphytes seldom seen from the ground. Thousands of colorful birds await to be spotted, and with some luck you might even follow along with troops of monkeys as they forage through the forest canopy. Taking a leisurely walk above the trees on this incredible structure, to emerge even higher on the top of the towers surrounded by an endless sea of rain forest, is an experience not to be missed, and as far as we know found nowhere else in the world.

And, here it is. Amazing, yes! But YIKES!

Kenn braves the stomach-churning heights of the Canopy Walk.

It looks scary, and it is! But, check out the view...

The biodiversity at Sacha is overwhelming.
On our first day we saw:

Lots of Squirrel Monkeys

This HUGE and crazy-weird caterpillar

One of my trip faves... This white frog. That is to say, it started out white! But, as I got closer to photograph it, it very slowly turned a dark salmon pink. Even our seasoned guide, Oscar, was trippin out over this thing.

First white...

And then pink...COOL!

This Three-toed Sloth was WAY out there, but I couldn't resist taking this really bad photo.

We heard what I consider to be one of the world's most beautiful bird songs.
I never did get a decent photo, but I did capture the magical song of the Musician Wren:

And finally...

During this trip, I was blessed with, perhaps, the single-most extraordinary bird-related experience of my life: a trip to visit Refugio Paz de las Aves, or Refuge of the Birds' Peace.

Angel Paz with Kenn

Angel Paz has become legendary for his ability to "speak" to the most elusive of forest dwelling skulkers, the antpittas. I could never begin to describe the religious experience of this place, and I never imagined that anyone else could, either. When we got back from our honeymoon, Kenn wanted to write about our experience with Angel in his column for Bird Watcher's Digest. Kenn is my all-time favorite nature writer, but I was hesitant. I honestly feared that no one, not even my Kenn, could capture and convey the magnitude of this experience.
---I was wrong.

When I read the column, I was transported. I trembled at the moment when the first Andean Cock-of-the Rock, indeed, ROCKED the forest with its insanely piercing call. I held my breath as the first Giant Antpitta emerged from the vegetation to snatch up Angel's wormy offering. I gasped at the site of this once mysterious bird, revealed. I wept at the remarkable gentleness of this simple man and his love for his mountain and his birds.
...and I fell in love with my husband all over again.

---read The Antpitta Whisperer
After the Spark, July/August 2006
Bird Watcher's Digest

Manuel, the Giant Antipitta makes his appearance:

If you love birds and nature and you have the desire to travel, then I hope that someday you will be able to experience Ecuador. The plethora of biodiversity will leave you feeling blessed and breathless. I can't wait to hear the tales from the BSBO'ers when they return!

The Antpitta Whisperer

For Bird Watcher's Digest column “After the Spark”
by Kenn Kaufman
July-August 2006 issue


After a lifetime of pursuing rare and wonderful birds on all seven continents, I have just had the strangest experience of my birding career. The following may sound like weird fiction, but it’s all true.

The story begins with the Andean cock-of-the-rock. It’s a bird as odd as its name, the size and shape of a football, living in mountain forests of western South America. Males are brilliant flaming orange-red, but in mating season they don’t rely on mere color. Groups of males, a dozen or more, gather at traditional dancing grounds called leks at mid-levels in the forest, and hop about while they make odd calls. At times, perhaps when a female is nearby, the lek erupts into a frenzy of bobbing and bowing, twanging and growling and squealing. This is a bird made for stardom, made for television, and the weirdest thing is that it’s not even the subject of this story. It’s just the catalyst.

Ecuador was the first nation in South America where ecotourism had a significant impact on the economy, with hordes of tourists visiting the Galapagos and the Amazon Basin. On the west slope of the Ecuadorian Andes, in the Mindo - Tandayapa area, a number of lodges cater specifically to traveling bird watchers, and several locals now make their living as birding guides. This news was not lost on a local farmer named Angel Paz, a man who loved nature. Of the 70 hectares that he owned, he farmed only 30 and had left the other 40 covered with its original growth of subtropical forest. On his property there was a lek of Andean cocks-of-the-rock, and Paz reasoned that tourists might pay to watch these birds, generating some extra income to help support his family.

So Mr. Paz set out to make a good trail through the forest from his house to the lek. He was by nature a quiet, gentle man, and one day as he was working on cutting the trail, he noticed a large, plump, gray-brown bird lurking nearby. He didn’t know its name but he knew it was a ground-dweller with a haunting, hooting voice, a shy bird, hard to approach. But this individual was only a few yards away. Paz’s shovel had just turned up an earthworm, and on a whim, he tossed the worm to the lurking bird. Instead of running away, the bird bounded forward on its long legs and swallowed the worm.

Intrigued, Paz took on the challenge of winning the trust of this shy forest bird. He would watch for it every day, and if he could approach closely enough, he would toss a worm to it. The bird learned to associate Paz with these morsels, and eventually it would come when he called - - he had named it “Manuel” - - to grab a handout before vanishing into the forest undergrowth. Paz began working to train other shy forest birds to take worms from him. For a quiet farmer who loved nature, this was just a way of getting closer to the wildlife on his land.
Paz had not abandoned his plan to bring birding tourists to see the Andean cocks-of-the-rock, and after he contacted the local birding lodges, he had his first group of visitors. The birders enjoyed watching the lek, and as they were on their way out, Paz thought they might be interested to see Manuel, his shy forest bird. But they were a lot more than merely interested. The visitors went berserk. Manuel, as it turned out, was one of the most legendary elusive birds in all of South America, a giant antpitta.

Antpittas live only in the American tropics, and they are unlike anything found in the United States. Round-bodied, short-necked, short-tailed, long-legged, an antpitta looks sort of like a dingy grapefruit perched atop two soda straws. Even their name is cobbled together: they bear a vague resemblance to birds called pittas in the Old World tropics, and they are distantly related to tropical American birds that habitually follow army ant swarms. To say that antpittas are heard more often than seen would be the grossest understatement. In my travels in Central and South America I have seen a few antpittas, but usually it has required an excruciating effort. Many types of antpittas are easy to imitate, and you can whistle an imitation, or play a tape recording, and the bird will call back to you for hours, approaching closely through the undergrowth, but most of the time you will never get a glimpse. Even the most numerous antpittas are exceedingly difficult to see. Those antpittas that are genuinely scarce are almost never seen by anyone. So it’s not hard to understand why the visiting birders went crazy at the sight of unassuming Mr. Paz feeding worms to one of the rarest and least-known of this whole tribe of elusive birds.

And it’s not hard to understand why Kim and I had to go see this phenomenon for ourselves. We had run into our friend Martin Reid at Guango Lodge on the east slope, and he had told us all about it, so as soon as we arrived at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge we had to ask: “What’s the deal with this guy who has the antpittas?” It’s easy, we were told. We’ll just make a phone call, and Mr. Paz will meet you in the morning and take you to his bird sanctuary.

So an hour before first light, we were driving down the Tandayapa Valley to the main highway and turning west toward the town where Paz was to meet us. It was raining, and we wondered if he would show up after all; but right at the main intersection in the highway town of Nanegalito, under a streetlight, sat a motorcycle with three rain-jacketed figures. Mr. Paz had come through the rain by motorbike, and he had brought his wife and young son along. His wife climbed in the back seat of our rental jeep to make sure we didn’t get lost, and Mr. Paz and his boy went speeding up the highway ahead of us, then zooming off on a side road, muddy with the night’s rain, across a couple of rushing streams, through slick patches and deep patches, miles through the dark until we finally reached the humble home of the Paz family.

After the nerve-wracking drive, it was a relief just to take flashlights and walk the trail to the observation blind to watch the cocks-of-the-rock displaying and showing off at first light. Amazing and spectacular they were, a fitting warm-up act. For nearly an hour we watched them, and after they dispersed, Kim and I followed Mr. Paz deeper into the forest.

This was our first chance to really look at Angel Paz in daylight. His first name had the Spanish pronunciation of AHN-hel, of course, but it meant the same thing as the English word, and his last name translated to “peace.” As if his personality had been shaped by his name, he was an exceptionally gentle man, his voice soft but filled with conviction. He had named his land Refugio Paz De Las Aves, a nice play on words meaning both the Paz Bird Refuge and the refuge of the birds’ peace. He was at peace with the birds, all right. We would soon see that for ourselves.

His son had brought a dish of earthworms dug up elsewhere on the farm. Stopping by a stream, Paz explained that he had to wash these worms before offering them to the antpittas.

Wash them? He didn’t just wash the worms. He bathed them. He baptized them. The careful, intense washing of the worms went on for twenty minutes. It brought to mind a master chef preparing gourmet delicacies for the queen, not a farmer preparing bird food. But Paz was no ordinary farmer. Finally finishing the ritual of washing, he stood looking and listening intently for a minute, and then led us slowly down the trail.

My curiosity had reached a fever pitch now, wondering what would happen next. The forest had been relatively quiet in the rain this morning, with few bird calls, and even now that the rain had stopped I had not heard anything that sounded like an antpitta. Where we were standing now there was no sign of any bird. But apparently Paz was going to call the bird to come to us.

“Manuel!” Paz shouted suddenly, and I jumped; it was the first time we had heard him raise his voice. “Manuel! Venga, venga!” (Come, come!) “Venga, venga, venga, Manuel!” Yeah, right, I said to myself. This had to be some kind of practical joke. At any moment now, no doubt, Mr. Paz would laugh and start speaking English, and would tell us that he and our friend Martin had hatched this crazy stunt to see how gullible we were. But looking into his face, it was clear he was not joking. Paz was peering with a deep intensity at a spot in the dense undergrowth alongside the trail ahead. . . a spot where a hulking shape lurked among the foliage. It had come silently and it was barely visible, a darker shadow among shadows, and then it was gone again. But we knew something had been there. Paz knew it too. “Manuel,” he said, more quietly now. “Manuel! Venga.”

And before our unbelieving eyes, Manuel did come. The bird hopped out into the open, out into the center of the muddy trail.

Books describe the giant antpitta’s size by giving a total length of about ten inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. That’s about the same as an American robin, but the robin is a slim bird and its tail accounts for about a third of its length. The giant antpitta, by contrast, is a bulky round-bodied bird with essentially no tail at all, and on its long legs it stands well over a foot tall. It’s a big bird, and a weird-looking one as well, with a punched-in bill, fat neck, big eyes, and squiggles of black on its rusty belly. Some might call it ugly. For us, it was beautiful.

We were frozen where we stood, but Paz crept forward a couple of steps and then gently tossed an earthworm out onto the trail. The giant antpitta cocked its head, bounded forward with great springy hops, grabbed the worm, and retreated into the undergrowth. A few moments later it reappeared, coming closer this time. Paz fed the antpitta three more times, and for one of these the bird came up to only a few inches away from his outstretched hand. But it never lost its furtive look, and after four worms it melted away silently into the forest.

During the next hour and a half, numb with disbelief, Kim and I followed Paz as he led us along the trails through his forest. He called out a smaller species, the yellow-breasted antpitta, and then a second one at another spot, and then a third. He tried calling another giant antpitta (“Maria”), but she didn’t come, and Paz explained that she might have been out of earshot. He called out a moustached antpitta, quite a rare bird in Ecuador, and he called a nervous little flock of dark-backed wood-quail.

These were all birds I had never seen before, for all my travels in South America, and I went away with a profound respect for Mr. Angel Paz and his Refuge of the Birds’ Peace. My friends and I had always pursued these shy forest birds with our high-quality tape recorders and binoculars and maps and reference books and rented four-wheel-drives, and we usually struck out on actually seeing the birds. We were outclassed by a quiet man armed only with patience, love of the forest, and a dish of earthworms.

As naturalists, we value diversity, and we go to places like Ecuador because there are so many varieties of birds there. However, diversity among the naturalists is a good thing too. Our standard American / European approach to bird watching is fine, but it’s not the only one. No doubt many international birders will descend on the Paz Bird Refuge as its fame grows, and they will be thrilled to see their first giant antpitta. I hope they will all understand that the rarest creature there is not the antpitta, but the remarkable Mr. Paz himself.

---Copies of this issue of Bird Watcher's Digest are available online by clicking HERE.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Petal to the Medal / Bird on a Wire

From Home base in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kim writes: After a very long day, this is what I arrived home to last night:
Aren't they lovely?! If there was a medal for world's most beautiful flower arrangement, these flowers would take solid gold. The best part is that they came on a random day: Not my birthday. Not our anniversary. Not Valentine's Day. Just another day in the life of being married to a very sweet and thoughtful man.

Okay, I know this is supposed to be a birding blog. So, I'll give you a bird fix.

Our friend and great birder, Carl Edwards, is a lifelong Floridian and he lives near the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, so he joined us for Kenn's keynote talk at the refuge last Saturday. The talk was sold out--standing room only--and they actually blocked the door and had a refuge volunteer keeping people from squeezing in. Well, Carl spent a little too much time out birding and arrived a few minutes late, so he had to ninja his way past the door police to get in. (Nothing like a good bird ninja!).

Kenn with Carl "the bird ninja" Edwards.

After Kenn's talk, Carl really wanted to take us to a few of his favorite birding spots, but Kenn and I needed to start the long drive back to Ohio. On our way out to the parking lot I was crying the blues to Carl about how I had really hoped to see a Snail Kite on this trip. He consoled me with a "maybe next time," and we said our goodbyes.

Kenn and I stopped for gas, tossed a coin about which route to take out of the gas station parking lot, and off we went. We hadn't driven a 1/4 of a mile when I noticed this dude alongside the road, standing outside his vehicle, flailing his arms and jumping up and down. At first I was thinking - News Headline: Florida Residents Reveal The True Meaning Behind the "SNAP" in Cold Snap! And then I realized that it was CARL! SO then I was thinking,"Well, too much birding and lack of sleep had finally taken its toll on Carl," but as we zipped past at 70 mph, I noticed he was actually pointing at something on a wire above this narrow canal. Oh man, could it be...

It was! A young male Snail Kite was walking the high wire, searching for snails from this primo vantage point above the canal.

After some pretty crazy freeway maneuvers to get back to the spot, we spent several glorious minutes appreciating this bird at a supremely close range.

We stood spell bound for several minutes, and then he ripped off the wire and the wind grabbed him and blew him right over my head.

KaPow! What a magnificent bird.
Kenn pointed out that the flight style of Snail Kites is much more relaxed than most raptors. After all, their prey are snails; no need get all fired up the chase.

He sashayed down into the canal and when he came back up he had a prize.
You can see it in his talons. I hope my friend Dave will give me props for this "Birds From Behind" photo!

He returned to his spot on the wire with his catch.

Eventually he settled in to chow his snail.
It was amazing to see the highly adapted bill and talons at work, getting to the heart of the snail matter.

Did anyone notice that the bird was banded? Kenn and I are working on blowing up the image to the point of reading the band. Unfortunately the light was really harsh, so the pictures aren't exactly razor sharp, but we're trying.

Thanks again, Carl! I appreciate the lengths that you will go to help me see a particular bird.

Happy Birding, ya'll!

Monday, February 8, 2010

A favor, pretty please!

From Ohio's Winter Wonderland, Kim Writes: Kenn and I arrived back in Ohio around 2:00 this morning from our adventures in Florida. We had originally planned to stay an extra night and come home late this afternoon, but, the roads were clear and dry, our "rockin rental minivan" had satellite radio, and we were all hopped up on Girl Scout Cookies that we purchased from a pig-tailed entrepreneur, who had gotten permission to set up a stand at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge during Everglades Day. We stopped at this great farm market right at the entrance to the Refuge with the intention of buying all this great fresh fruit. BUT...we spotted the sad little face of "The Cookie Racketeer" and she made us an offer we couldn't refuse.
(Don't you think the Thin Mint should be declared our National Cookie?!)

We've got tons to tell you about the trip and the two events, Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival and Everglades Day at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, that took us there in the first place. But first, I just had to share this exciting news with you...

If you know what a bird is. And you know what a blog is. Then you probably know all about Charlie, Mike, and Corey, and their blog, 10,000 Birds. But, what you might not know is that, in addition to all the great stuff they're already doing, they've created a very special opportunity for visitors to their blog to support conservation!

The Conservation Club is a brilliant concept. All it takes is $25 and you're a member, and 100% of your $25 goes to support a conservation organization selected by the 10,000 Birds crew. Yep! It's truly that simple. They make it easy to join too, with convenient online registration and payment options. I hope you'll consider joining!
Kenn and I were so impressed by this effort that we decided to donate THREE COMPLETE SETS of Kaufman Field Guides as incentive for people to join. The give-away starts today, so get on over there and check it out---if for no other reason than to see what they call Kenn in the announcement about the field guides... *giggling like a school girl!*

And, here's a little teaser for what we have to share with you about the Florida festivals and birds and manatees and snakes and birds and birds and birds....
A very personable Limpkin at the Viera Wetlands in Melbourne, Florida.
Viera Wetlands is on the map right now because of the Masked Duck that has been hanging out there. We did see it, and he was a handsome lad, for sure. But, how can you resist a Limpkin that's practically stepping on you toes and calling like a maniac?!

The bizarre, yet lovely, Roseate Spoonbill,
photographed at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The spoonbills are coming into their full breeding plumage right now and they are the ugliest, yet most spectacularly beautiful, mixed-message in the bird world.

Okay, now get on over to 10,000 Birds and have a go at winning a set of the best field guides, EVER! : )

Thanks, everyone!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sky Watch Friday

From somewhere near Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Kenn and Kim write: We have much to share from our amazing experience at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival last week. But for now, in celebration of Sky Watch Friday, we offer you this sizzling sunset over the marshes and mudflats of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.