Joined December 2017 Message
  • Christmas in Calafate

    January 6, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    The last stop in civilization before 3 months in the remote Patagonian steppe with Proyecto Macá Tobiano (year 3), El Calafate provided one final, glorious taste of the most

  • Day22

    Fundación Jocotoco Guacamayo Project

    December 15, 2017 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    The Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus), or Guacamayo as it is called locally, is a spectacular and regal bird who despite its wide range from Guatemala to southern Ecuador, has seen its population nosedive due primarily to habitat loss due to deforestation and trapping for the illegal pet trade. Under 4000 individuals are estimated to exist throughout its range while a mere 30 of the Ecuadorian subspecies (Ara ambiguus guayaquilensis) still roam wild in a few areas of forest in western Ecuador. However, there have been no sightings in the Ayampe/Machalilla National Park area for more than 50 years.

    Thankfully the Jocotoco Foundation, and Ecuadorian conservation organization, is spearheading a reintroduction project. After seeing a flyer giving info about the project at the bus stop, Kaitlin touched base with Byron Delgado, the local point person for the project, and arranged a visit to see the birds slated for reintroduction.

    After a slight miscommunication on the time of or meeting and a long, slow hike down the always birdy Sendero Colibrí, we finally met up with Byron, who escorted us the final few hundred meters to the enclosure where the birds live. We hung out in the large cage (20mL x 5mW x 6mH) for 20-30 minutes and practiced our slowly improving Spanish by peppering him with questions about the birds and the reintroduction program.

    The program faces many challenges as reintroduction programs often do. The birds at the facility we visited were all rescue from the illicit pet trade and were rehabbed at a nearby facility and then transferred to this large cage in the Ayampe River Preserve in order to re-acclimate to life in the forest. The birds have plenty of room to fly and seem highly energetic, flying back and forth, climbing the walls and ceiling of the cage, and preening each other. They are fed a diet of the same fruits and seeds that they would find in the nearby forest. Large branches of native trees, sometime containing fruit are brought into the enclosure and propped up to further mimic the native forest into which they will eventually be released. But these measures do not guarantee success upon release. A few birds that were part of an earlier soft release were rediscovered water-logged and apparently unable to get themselves dry. It seems that life in multiple cages had not prepared them for some of the basic rigors of life in the wild. Some of the other main problems they face upon their eventual release (planned for the middle of the dry season in February so they are hopefully not met with an immediate downpour upon release) are continued pressures from the illegal cage bird trapping trade and predation from animals they have not yet encountered like Pumas.

    The project hopes to mitigate the threat of poaching with community based education programs. The birds are also fitted with GPS chips that will track them after release and give authorities an idea of whether the birds are safe. Once they learn to life in their new wild surroundings the next problem becomes creating new generations of little macaws. Most of the forest surrounding their current enclosure, having been at least selectively logged over the years, no longer contains trees large enough or old enough to contain cavities suitable for such a large bird to nest in. The project, in theory, has this issue covered as well and will be placing large nest boxes throughout the forest in hopes that the birds will use them. Presumably they will introduce them into their cage sometime before release to the birds get used to the sight of them and then hope that they make the connection once they are out in the forest.

    Admittedly it was a little strange, as birders, to get excited about seeing birds in a cage. But knowing what they've gone through to get here, and that they will soon be the hopeful harbingers of a triumphant return to their ancestral home, makes the experience slightly more uplifting that seeing a parrot depressingly trapped in a cage in someone's living room (no matter how cute it is when it dances to Shakira songs on YouTube).

    If the project succeeds it will be a monumental conservation success story and could even provide the impetus for broader forest protections. With a little luck and a lot of hard work from dedicated local volunteers like Byron, future visitors to Ayampe may be able to gaze out over the nearby hillsides from their beach bungalow balcony and watch troops of green and red comets streaming above the trees, their wild, demonic cackles echoing through the forest.
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  • Day21

    Ayampe River delta wetlands

    December 14, 2017 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    While initially searching for a place to take Spanish and surfing classes for a month on the Ecuador coast, Kaitlin and I thought it might be prudent to choose a place with minimal birding opportunities in order to better focus our efforts on the task at hand. In the end though, instinct took over and birding potential began to creep back onto the priority list, as we realized that a month of mediocre birding is a really long time.

    Ayampe turned out to be the perfect marriage of our four primary objectives; Spanish learnin', surfin', birdin' and doin' it all in a place where old sea dog locals sleeping the day away in hammocks far outnumber bars and the attendant 'extranjeros' loudly returning from said bars at 3am (read: Montanita). Due to a mix of luck and expert research on Kaitlin's part, we also managed to book one of the cheapest long-term lodgings in town, which also fortuitously overlooks the river delta and wetland complex that define Ayampe.

    The area around the Ayampe River delta preserves a small wetland and mangrove complex and teems with a large variety of waterbirds, crustaceans and reptiles. The mangrove ecosystem is in Ecuador (and really everywhere that it exists in the world) faces daunting challenges, much of it already having been destroyed to make way for shrimp farms and various forms of coastal development. Thankfully, perhaps due to its connection to the vast forest preserve inland from Ayampe, this small stretch of mangrove has remained somewhat intact.

    On any given day from our upstairs window we can see over 10 species of waders including Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Striated and Cocoi Herons, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, White Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers, Limpkins and Whimbrels. Troops of Groove-billed Anis flop around in the wetland vegetation and then sit atop the mangroves to dry their wings. Each morning we awaken to the cheery songs of 'Mangrove' Yellow Warblers defending their personal mangrove tree. Technically considered a subspecies of the migratory Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) which breeds over a large part of North America, the 'mangrove' subspecies are restricted to mangrove habitats in the Neotropics and sport a distinctive rufous cap. Just beyond the wetland, the Ayampe River (usually) flows into the ocean. The river widens here and for the better part of the day it serves as a giant constantly recharging bath for hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds. At any given time a group of 20-30 will be swirling around and then one by one (or two-by-two or 3-by-3) they begin swooping down to the surface of the water to quickly dip their bellies and underwings in the fresh water before circling again and repeating the cycle. Occasionally a bird will dip its bill in the water and appear to catch a small fish but it appears that the primary goal of this exercise is bathing, presumably to cleanse their plumage of salty water from a life spent at sea. This area is also popular with more diving oriented hunters like Neotropic Cormorants and Pied-billed Grebes and various plunge-dive feeders like Brown Pelicans, various tern species, and Ringed and Green Kingfishers.

    Let's hope that tourists and locals alike continue to show appreciation for this vital and shrinking habitat to ensure its preservation in perpetuity.
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  • Antisana Eco-Reserve and Tambo Condor

    November 23, 2017 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    Even a lingering fever and a mostly sleepless night induced by altitude related breathing difficulties couldn't put a damper on breathtaking scenery and spectacular birds in the Ecuadorian páramo. Our journey began at the rustic Tambo Condor, a small lodge and restaurant near the entrance of the Antisana Ecological Reserve. The fixture of Tambo Condor is the quaint restaurant housed in a dimly lit wood and stone cabin, warmed by a crackling fire and serving traditional Andean cuisine, the walls not quite thick enough to contain the undending whistled refrain of Tawny Antpittas and cheery warble of Rufous-collared Sparrows drifting in from the surrounding pastures and shrublands. The porch and yard around the restaurant is adorned with multiple hummingbird feeders and large picture windows allow you to marvel at some spectacular high elevation specialties like Sparkling Violetear, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Shining Sunbeam, Great Sapphirewing, Tyrian Metaltail and of course the king of all hummers, the Giant Hummingbird. Most birders come here for the Andean Condors and the small lodge, perched on the edge of a cliff just down the hill from the restaurant offers outstanding views of the surrounding steep hillsides that tower over the far below lake and the boulder-strewn mountain torrent that drains into it. We were not there at the right time of year to observe nesting birds but got great looks at two adults and a juvenile picking out their night roost on the opposing cliffs and then preening on their cliff side aerie the following morning. As for the lodge and the views, the photo out the window of our bedroom pretty much speaks for itself.

    Tambo Condor has also apparently become something of a hub of conservation activity and its tourism in the area. Aside from hosting various bird tour groups and individual birders like ourselves and being funded by the Peregrine Fund to provide valuable Andean Condor nesting data, they also played host to a gathering or local and regional conservation groups during or stay there (which, sadly prevented us from getting one more excellent meal there on or way back to the Quito airport).

    From Tambo Condor, we headed up the mountain to the nearby Antisana Ecological Reserve a vast expanse of high elevation páramo that protects the area surrounding the Volcán Antisana. Mile upon mile of rolling, austere grasslands were punctuated by fields filled with dozens of Carunculated Caracaras of all ages, presumably hunting for insects and perhaps lizards amongst the bunch grasses. Andean Gulls rested by the hundreds some in the middle of the road, some tucked within the sparse vegetation. A family of Andean Lapwings foraged alongside the road, the tiny, spotted fluff ball chicks hiding beneath their mother when we got too close, then emerging after a few restless minutes of inactivity to forage and explore their new world once again.

    The end of or road brought us to the Laguna Micacocha, a massive dammed body of water that provides drinking water for many of the surrounding communities. The trail down to the lake passed through a beautiful community of chest-high shrubs that was shockingly reminiscent of North American Great Basin sage and rabbitbrushes, many in bloom with little white or yellow daisy-like flowers. The buzzes and trills of Sedge Wrens and Many-striped Canasteros provided the soundtrack and the occasional Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, Stout-billed Cinclodes and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant would flush from the trail ahead. Down at the lake, amongst a smattering of ducks and coots, we were able to get our first looks at the juninensis subspecies of the Silvery Grebe.
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