Thursday, January 24, 2008

Banding in the Colonche Hills of Ecuador

I recently participated as a volunteer on this year's portion of Lifenet's ongoing research that is occurring at the Lloma Alta Community Reserve located in the coastal hills of western Ecuador. I spent a total of sixteen days in Ecuador; ten of those days at a semi-primitive base camp, 4 hours (by mule or foot) from the nearest village with electricity or that was reachable by vehicle. While we were at this camp we spent our time banding understory birds as part of the ongoing research that is being conducted by Dusti Becker through Lifenet. During the afternoons several of us would also go up to "el pasturo" where three hummingbird feeders had been put up and conduct counts of various hummingbird species use of the feeders. We were only at about 600 meters elevation and the temperature while we were up in the hills varied from maybe 60 F (at night) to about 80 F. It rained or misted basically continuously for the first five days we were up there, which made it very difficult conditions to do work in. The trails, already extremely muddy when we got there, became what I would describe as more of a gloppy soup by the end of five days of rain and heavy foot traffic by the volunteers running the mist net lines (see right). The local staff that Dusti had hired to cook our meals and to assist with the banding did an outstanding job and I think it is safe to say that the entire team of volunteers were very impressed at both of the cook's ability to set excellent meals in front of us without exception (vital to morale after five days of straight rain and mud (loudo in Spanish). The two bird guides, Mauricio and Pascual were extremely familiar with all of the local birds and were also extremely skilled at extracting birds from the mistnets.

This was my first true banding experience and was a great way to start, seeing many understory species that can be incredibly difficult to see due to their quiet skulking behavior. It was very interesting how different species of birds reacted to being caught in the extremely fine mistnet and the approach of the volunteers to the nets. Some birds would just lay there in a resigned manner as soon as they hit the net and fell into the pocket under each panel of net. Other birds would struggle and twist themselves into seemingly hopeless messes in the net. I watched and learned from Pascual the first day of banding before I attempted to extract any birds and then began taking out some of the easier birds (Gray-and-gold Warbler and Orange-bellied Euphonia – pictured on the right with Mauricio). By the next day I was trying to extract most everything including hummingbirds (which I found to be much easier than I had imagined). If a bird was really bad, I would ask for Pascual's help, otherwise I would just take my time and methodically work my way through the puzzle of where and how every bit of the net had been looped over the wing, legs, feet, and head. Back at the banding station Dusti was also teaching me how to do the various measurements and observations that are recorded for each bird that is banded. By the second day of banding, she was allowing me to do the measurements of all the recaptures we were getting and even let me band the woodcreepers (some of the more tenacious residents of the forest that we were catching). The Spotted and Plain-brown Woodcreepers are both about Hairy or Red-bellied Woodpecker sized with much sharper beak and extremely strong feet. We banded in light rain for the first two days at banding runs that were at a slightly lower elevation and don't typically get as many birds (our base camp kitchen table doubled as banding station during the morning). This was done on purpose for the very good reason of allowing the volunteers to get used to extracting birds from the nets and the whole banding process. We had our first semi-sunny day when we opened the nets on the ridge. The topography and geography of the landscape makes this ridge a very good site to band birds as many of the birds from the lowlands cross from one valley to the next in the saddle of this ridge (where the nets are set up). We caught a lot of birds at these locations, with the species composition being a little different from the previous banding days. We seemed to catch more of the "ant" birds (Antthrush, Antbird, Antwren, Antvireo) at the other site, while catching things like Silver-throated Tanager and lots of hummingbirds were more common at the ridge. The highlight of the trip was when I was running one of the net lines with Emilie and I had stopped to take a euphonia or something out of a net and Emilie had gone on ahead of me. I was maybe five minutes behind her when I got to net 7 and there was a gorgeous male Collared Trogon caught in the top panel of the net! The trogon was barely caught, and I'm not sure if it would have remained caught if I hadn't stumbled upon it so soon after it had flown into the net. Either way, I was absolutely thrilled to take this bird out of the net and surprise Pascual with a bird that this team catches only once every few years (per Dusti's comments later on). We caught a few other birds like Pale-eyed Thrush, Immaculate Antbird, and Band-tailed Barbthroat (a hummingbird) that I either hadn't seen yet, or that were quite uncommon in the western hills of Ecuador and were to be more expected on the west slope of the Andes. The best information that we gathered that I know of, is a recapture of a male Slaty Antwren that is 12-13 years old! This is a bird the size of a House Wren! It absolutely blows me away how a passerine that small can live to be that old. Also, my Nikon Coolpix 4500, which has served me well for years, gave up the ghost at this point during the trip after taking its 9,599th picture. Unfortunately for me, I'd been hoarding my batteries like a miser since we had no way of recharging them at the casita, and therefore I only took ¾ worth of one batteries worth of banding pix. Bummer!

The birding was (as I had been warned by Caleb who had been to Ecuador before) difficult in the rain forest due to the extreme height of the trees, the amount of mid-level vegetation that block one's view of the high canopy, and the extremely backlit views you would get if you did manage to see a bird in the high canopy! This didn't stop me from at least attempting to bird every day but one while I was there. It was a real treat for me to observe species like spinetails and foliage-gleaners make up large percentages of mixed flocks (all furnarids, a family of birds that I had never seen prior to this trip!). Two other species that were found in nearly every mixed flock were the southern replacements of two of our summer warblers; Tropical Parulas and Slate-throated Whitestart (Redstart on some lists). Some of my favorite songsters down here were the Spotted Nightingale-thrush (a Catharus thrush like our Swainson's or Hermit with a song to match their vocal talent - left) with an ethereal melody that could be heard from the undergrowth. Another very cool song was had by the Scaly-breasted Wren (aka Southern Nightingale Wren) which actually made its way down a musical scale (call can be heard here). On one of the nicer days, Mauricio and Pascual came along with me in search of elegant crescent chest, a bird that superficially resembles perhaps a warbler but is totally unrelated. After a fair bit of bush-whacking with the machete (that us gringos were absolutely forbidden from using), we reached a location where Pascual pointed out the call of the crescent chest, but try as we might, we were unable to catch a glimpse of this skulking bird. While down there, we did see some other interesting things, like a wintering Olive-sided Flycatcher. This bird is quite familiar to me as it is a regular migrant across the US and breeds in the northern half of both Wisconsin and Michigan. Both Pascual and Mauricio were not as familiar with it, having only seen it a handful of times. It felt good to be able to point out an uncommon bird for them since they were endlessly patient with my questions in broken Spanish (Yo escuchando un diferente aves. Que es? Or Que es cantando aqui? (while pointing in the direction of the mystery song)). During my afternoons of birding I also had some rather good luck at locating nests (or neados en espanol). Over the course of my time there, I saw nests or cavities of the following species of birds; Collared Trogon, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Slate-throated Whitestart, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Flame-rumped Tanager (aka Lemon-rumped below), Buff-throated Saltator, Streaked Flycatcher, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Plain Antvireo. Another added benefit of spending my afternoons birding was that I usually would manage to bump into some of the more shy residents of the forest that we had been catching in the nets, but that I hadn't actually seen on my own in the field (a point of contention among some "listers" who won't count a bird that is caught in a net or after it's been released). Most days the cloud cover from the pasture was too heavy to see very far, but on a couple of the days it cleared nicely and we were treated to Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites buzzing the canopy in search of prey. King Vultures soared lazily in the distance, and Mauricio and I even observed a large group (18) of White-collared Swifts fly past the ridge (much more common in the Andes). On the final morning we were there, Mauricio, Larry, and I were one of three teams whose goal it was to go out and do a Christmas bird count type survey of the forest. I naturally choose to go the farthest afield to the more birdy areas I had been frequenting during the afternoons. It was fantastic to have Mauricio along who's keen eye spotted a pair of Red-headed Barbets sitting quietly in a tree that contained a small mixed flock (the first one's I'd seen). We pressed on into some of the more lowland secondary forest and got great looks at Crested Guan, Scaled Pigeons, and the ridiculously long-tailed Squirrel Cuckoo! We ended that morning with the not so shabby total of 84 species which had been supplemented by the raptors that had just started to fly at the pasture before we came back down for lunch.

The extraction – During the course of the time up at the casita, I had managed to keep my tent somewhat dry, relatively bug-free, and my feet had not blistered (a miracle considering all of this hiking and climbing was being done in "Wellies" as the brits call them). The trip into the casita had been interesting (to say the least), with added adventure being added by the fact that I stood taller than the horse I had been allotted for the ride in. Other bonuses included the fact that I had one of the most eager/restless horses of the entire group, and the stirrups weren't designed for this westerners size 15 shoe. (Pictured is Emilie with "my" horse being on the right)After riding the horse for about a half hour with only my toes in the stirrups, I ditched the stirrups entirely and it only took another 20 minutes before I decided to hike the rest of the way in to the casita. With all of this knowledge to benefit by, I forwent the opportunity for a repeat performance and decided to hike all the way out in my willies and attempt to bird as well. I'm definitely glad I did this, as there were numerous species of birds that I only saw during this portion of the trip (Guira Tanager, White-necked Jacobin, Blue-black Grosbeak, and Laughing Falcon to name a few). It was also frustrating birding as there was the constant approaching horse behind you that limited any new bird sighting to less than 20 seconds! We finally did reach El Suspiro and the Italian Hacienda that we were to spend the night at and I was very pleased to see an actual bed and mosquito net in my room! The grounds of the hacienda were very birdy with Blue-crowned Motmots being highly visible and other species like Ecuadorian Trogon, Plumbeous-backed Thrush, and Baird's Flycatcher being extremely nice treats. The biggest highlight for me was a return to the warm dry weather of the lowlands and the ability to wear t-shirts, shorts, and sandals again! The Long-tailed Mockingbird (below) is an extremely common resident of the dry thorn forest that dominates the western lowlands.

The Coast –

Several of us elected to extend our trip and hire Pascual to guide us along the coast for two extra days following our return from Lloma Alta. We headed up to Puerto Lopez where we stayed at a very nice lodge that was owned by a Swiss gentleman and his wife which catered to westerners (but still wasn't very expensive…especially when compared to the $140 it had cost me to stay in Miami one night on my way down). From here we went up to Agua Blanca that evening to a Sulfur bath which was supposed to help with itching the numerous chigger and mosquito bites that everyone had. We managed to see a few new things during the short hike to the Sulfur bath (including a Choco Screech-Owl and my first ever becard, a pair of One-colored Becards). The rest of that evening was primarily a bust bird-wise but we enjoyed a leisurely supper and arranged for our van driver to meet us at 6AM the next morning so we could get an early start for more birding. Mary, Pascual, and I were the only ones who elected to do the early birding, and we were a bit peeved to find out that our van driver had decided that his sleep was more important than our agreed upon rendezvous. Luckily, he showed up at 6:40AM and we were able to get out before it got too late. We headed down to Ayampe and birded along a small trail that had an amazing amount of bird activity. Gray-capped, Little, and Striped Cuckoo were all seen or heard. An austral migrant was seen in the form of several Small-billed Elaenias, while species like Pale-mandibled Aracari's and Linneated Woodpeckers amazed me with their enormous size and beauty (a very colorful toucan and an ivory-billed woodpecker look-alike). I was able to point out a female-type American Redstart to Pascual, a species that he had never seen before! One of my favorite birds of the entire trip ended up being the Black-throated Mangos that were aggressively chasing each other all over the woodland edges.

We wrapped up around 10:30 and headed down the coast towards Salinas and the famed Ecuasal lagoons where the main attraction is the Chilean Flamingos that are present there. Upon our arrival, Pascual worked his magic on the guard at the gate who let us in without any charge and we began our drive around the dikes that separate the various lagoons that are used for salt extraction. Not only were the promised Chilean Flamingos present, but novel new birds like the Cocoi Heron (a seemingly more formal version of a great blue heron with a spiffy white neck with sharply contrasting dark neck and head), brightly colored red beak's look vivid against the white cheeks of the numerous White-cheeked Pintail that dabbled the lagoons, while the gigantic Peruvian Pelicans sat out among Brown Pelicans that now appeared to be dwarfed. Most of the shorebirds were our North American species that were spending the winter in coastal Ecuador, not a bad idea. Wilson's Phalarope were present in large flocks, Black Tern was seen over the lagoon, and a grand total of three Tricolored Herons (the perennial favorite of coastal habitats) were seen as well. A Peregrine Falcon also noticed how many shorebirds were concentrated in this vicinity and we watched it flush across the lagoons sending shorebirds every which way as they attempted to avoid becoming supper. Can you find the Franklin's Gull? This is a fairly typical flock of gulls that would be found concentrated around fishing villages along the coast. Laughing Gull makes up the bulk of these flocks, followed in abundance by the smashing Gray-hooded Gull (not pictured), rounded out by a smattering of Franklin's Gulls (top center among Laughing Gulls). Another ubiquitous coastal bird was the Magnificent Frigatebird (below), which is a fairly accomplished fisherman in its own right, but who prefers to steal his fish from anything and everything. We witnessed a large congregation of frigatebirds harassing fisherman as they ran from their boats to the cover of sheds where they would sort the fish and send it away. The birds were actually flying down and snatching fish right out of the open boxes as the fisherman ran the gauntlet of frigatebirds to get to the covered protection of their sheds.

I ended the trip with around 270 species seen in Ecuador, of which about 190 were life birds for me. More importantly, I got to experience a truly special place with an adventorous lot of people and lived to tell the tale! I can't wait to return and see the many other facets of Ecuador. Hopefully my Spanish skills will have progressed a little more by then!

Pale-legged Hornero (aka Pacific Hornero)

I found out that many Black Vultures will eat anything (incl old discarded fish parts)!

I hope you enjoyed this account and I'll leave you with this sunset off the coast at Valdivia.

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