08 October 2011

Ecuador, At Last

We departed Miami on-time at 2:00pm, although actual departures were a bit back-logged due to the intense rain. By 2:20pm we were in the air. I went to sleep immediately, but woke about an hour later for some dinner. From Seattle to Miami we got nothing on Alaska Airlines, but LAN was a pleasant surprise. We got a blanket, pillow, earphones, hot dinner, and free tv and movies. It was like travelling in the 60s (my recollection being only that which I have seen in movies) with all the frills and being treated like someone important. Even the leg room was excellent, and the chairs reclined more than usual.

According to the flight map we flew right over Panama, but I would never have known it with all the cloud cover. I didn`t see land until we reached the coast of Ecuador, and even then there were huge billowing cumulous clouds reaching nearly 30,000 feet. As we began our decent, rain was evident, but there were definately clear patches as we could see one volcano towering above the clouds. We touched down in Quito on time, at 5:10pm. Getting through customs was remarkably quick, and took less than 5 minutes. We spent close to 15 minutes waiting for our bags, which I was beginning to worry about as they had unloaded three crates and ours wasn't there. Finally, a fourth crate arrived and both our bags were delivered.

Next stop was the car rental agency, which was very poorly signed, but eventually found outside and across the street from the terminal. The car I had requested was not available, but after going through some options, I ended up with a Toyota Fortuner. We departed the airport at 6:30, and after eventually getting a GPS signal, navigated our way down typical South American city roadways in a series of bumps, swerves, horn-honking, random pedestrians, and our GPS telling us to turn the wrong way down a one-way road. We eventually found our hotel, the Radisson, checked in expeditiously, and began to organize for tomorrow's early morning start.

While I personally didn't see any birds in the wee bit of light we had left after our arrival (sunset is at 5:58pm), Joanna did spot a Rufous-collared Sparrow at the terminal while I was renting the car.

Not sure when I`ll be able to make the next post, as I don`t know where we will next have internet. So, until next time, happy birding.

In Miami

It’s 12:30pm here in Miami and it’s raining cats, dogs, birds, bugs, elephants. What a downpour, with lightning and thunder to boot. We can only hope that it passes in the next hour or so as our flight is scheduled to leave at 2:00pm. I haven’t seen any flights depart now for about 20 minutes, but then again, I can’t see much further than about 200-300 meters.

Passing the time in the airport has been, well, interesting. After arriving at 7:45am and clearing the plane, Joanna and I cleaned ourselves up after what can only be described as a rough and uncomfortable flight. With on-again, off-again sleep throughout, I think I had about 3 hours, and Joanna only 1. We went for breakfast at Chili’s and had scrambled eggs from a carton, some weird cinder-like sausage, and fried toast. Apparently even toasters are too much trouble – so just throw it on the grill with everything else.
After eating we went to check in with LAN airlines for our next leg, but no one was there. To pass the time, we trolled a few stores then went for a joy ride on the moving sidewalks followed by a shuttle train to the rental cars. That was fun...for about 10 minutes! We did a bit (2 minutes) of birding from the train and picked up 4 species. We then scanned from the airport windows an area comprised mostly of industrial buildings and construction areas. We did spot a few additional species, of which two were lifers for Joanna: Boat-tailed Grackle and Fish Crow. We also spotted Common Grackle, Laughing Gull, Merlin, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, Cattle Egret, Northern Mockingbird, and Eurasian Collared-Dove.
We browsed a few more stores and I picked up a small Altec Lansing external speaker for my iPod so that I can broadcast bird calls, or at the very least, so that Joanna and I can listen to them simultaneously without having to share a pair of earbuds. We then proceeded to security and went to our gate to wait out the final 1.5 hours.  Joanna’s gone for snacks, but it has been more than 30 minutes since she left – hope she returns soon – I’m thirsty!
In the time it’s taken to write this posting, the sky has begin to break and the rain has mostly subsided. Next post will be from Quito, Ecuador. Yeah.
Happy Birding!

07 October 2011

The Journey Begins

After a long day of cleaning the house, packing our bags, and running last minute errands, we're finally on our way. My parents picked us up from our house at 3:45pm and drove us to the Victoria airport where we promptly checked in, and went for dinner at the White Spot. Mmmmm, lovely Bishop's Curry with a pint.

We boarded our Horizon Air flight at 6:30pm, and departed 5 minutes early. Yes, early!. In just 23 minutes we were back on the ground at the Seattle International airport. We cleared customs without any problems and rode the funky shuttle trains (3 of them) to our next gate. It's 8:15pm and we're sitting down enjoying a cup of Starbuck's finest, where in the city where it all began.

Our next flight, to Miami, is at 10:40pm, so we have a couple of ours to relax.

Planning: Papalacta to Sumaco

This post coming soon.

05 October 2011

Planning: Mindo to Yanacocha

After spending three nights at the Tandayapa Lodge, our next stop will be the Mindo Gardens Lodge, another birder-centric eco-lodge located near the town of Mindo and about 80 km west of Quito. The Mindo area is one of the premier birding sites in the world and is home to the Mindo Cloud Forest Foundation. Before arriving at the lodge, we plan to bird the roads and associated trails between Tandayapa and Mindo, then in the late afternoon we'll bird the garden trails and feeders. The next day we plan to visit the Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, a Mindo Cloud Forest Reserve property about one hour drive to the west. Rio Silanche will be the lowest elevation site we visit at just over 300 meters. Some of the relatively common species, and unique to our planned 2-week trip, include: Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Bright-rumped Atilla, Golden-hooded Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Pacific Parrotlet, Pale-legged Hornero, Purple Honeycreeper, Purple-chested Hummingbird, Scrub Blackbird, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, White-beared Manakin, and Yellow-tufted Dacnis.

The next day, after our second and final night at Mindo Gardens, we'll be birding Milpe Bird Sanctuary, another Mindo Cloud Forest Foundation property and one that includes the Mindo Gardens property. At 100 hectares, and between 1,000 and 1,150 meters, Milpe is ranked as one of the best places anywhere in Ecuador to bird. Part of its allure is that it supports some of the more spectacular Choco endemics. Some of the relatively common species, that we expect to see only here, include: Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Choc√≥ Warbler, Club-winged Manakin, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green-crowned Woodnymph, Ochre-breasted Tanager, Rufous-throated Tanager, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and White-whiskered Hermit.

After a morning of birding at Milpe we'll be gradually making our way back east to Quito where we'll spend two nights. The next day, Saturday, will be split between birding at Yanacocha Reserve, and visiting the El Ejido Market in Quito. The Yancocha Reserve is a 964 ha property managed by the Jocotoco Foundation, and is about an hour's drive west of Quito on the slopes of Volcan Pichincha. The reserve is most famous for the almost mythical, and quite possibly the rarest hummingbird in the world, Black-breasted Puffleg. While our hopes aren't high for seeing this bird, some relatively common species that we don't expect to find elsewhere include: Andean Snipe, Blue-black Conebill, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Rufous Wren, Spectacled Redstart, Tyrian Metaltail, and White-throated Tyrannulet.

In the next update I'll cover our plans for the final leg of our journey, birding the eastern slopes of the Andes.

Happy Birding

01 October 2011

Planning: Quito to Tandayapa

Our arrival in Quito, via Seattle and Miami, would see us arriving a little before 6pm, just minutes before sunset. After a long day of travelling, and after going through customs, collecting our bags, and picking up a rental car, staying overnight in Quito was a no-brainer. It really didn't matter where we chose to stay, though I did pick a hotel relatively close to the airport and in close proximity to the direction we were going to travel the next day. The Radisson Royal Quito Hotel seemed to fit the bill.

The first 7 days of our trip are going to be spent on the western slope, ranging from the Nono-Mindo Road that starts a short ways out of Quito, to Rio Silanche about 200 kms to the west. Our first day of birding will be along the Nono-Mindo Road, a popular birding destination through a mix of rural farmland and pockets of remnant forest. The Nono-Mindo road used to be the main road heading west out of Quito, but the relatively new A Los Bancos highway, located further north, has significantly reduced the volume of traffic owing to its shorter travel time between major destinations.

Tandayapa Lodge is our first birding node. It is located about 50 km west of the Quito airport, and for the most part, specifically caters to birders.  We will be spending three nights at the lodge, but likely will spend only one day birding the immediate trails that wind through the property. Our second day will be spent birding at and near the Bellavista Lodge, another ecolodge catering largely to birders and birding. Tandayapa and Bellavista are not all that far apart, and although they share a number of similar species, there are some notable differences that apparently make spending a day at each well worth the time. Both lodges are renowned for their hummingbirds, each attracting from 15 to 20 species on any given day. They also support numerous other birder ammentities, such as blinds and fruit feeders. While too numerous too list, the birds of Bellavista Lodge can be found here, and the birds of Tandayapa Lodge can be found here.

29 September 2011

One week to go!

In just seven short days, our trip to Ecuador begins. I've spent a lot of time over the past few months planning where we'll stay and where we'll go. We have exactly 13 days to visit as many areas, and see as many species, as is reasonable to do so without being constantly on the move and burning ourselves out. Planning was more challenging than I had anticipated, as unlike Panama, there is no comprehensive "Where to Find Birds in Ecuador" book. Instead, information had to be obtained piecemeal from a smattering of published information in books, and a huge range of websites, blogs, and discussion groups. Some of the best sources of information that were key to forming final decisions on where to go included:
The Birds of Ecuador (Ridgely and Greenfield)
Where to Watch Birds in South America (Wheatley)
Ecuador and the Galapogos Islands (Lonely Planet)

Another good source of information, particularly for lodging, is the Avitourism Strategy published by the Ecuador Ministry of Tourism and available through the Mindo Cloud Forest Foundation (http://www.mindocloudforest.org/avitourism/).

Whereas the above references were key to narrowing down the list of potential places to go birding, I likely visited at least another 100 websites to finalize our itinerary. Some of the more helpful sites were those hosted by the various birding  lodges, with each providing a wealth of information on their local area, and often specifically for their plot of land.

For anyone even remotely considering a trip to Ecuador, or for any birder that has taken a global interest in patterns of species distributions, it should come as no surprise that relative to its size, Ecuador is the most species rich country in the world for birds. What is slightly more subtle however, is that the vast majority of theses species are extremely range specific, and thus are distributed finely into specific habitats carved out over time by differences in precipitation, slope, aspect, elevation, and for some species (particularly neotropical migrants), seasonality. Other processes have also contributed to diversification and isolation of some species, including competition for resources and, in several instances, extreme specialization for a specific resource. Ecuador has more than 1,600 species in total. The exact number is not known and depending on the information source you consult, you`ll likely find differing results. The problem is further compounded by regular changes in taxonomic nomenclature which provides updates on the splitting or lumping of species based on new information. Often these changes take some time to appear in bird checklist updates.

I guess the long and short of it is, that in order to see a lot of species, you need to visit a lot of "niches". In other words, be sure to cover lots of ground latitudinally, longitudinally, and elvationally. That is how I planned our trip, at least for longitude and elevation.

Our port of landing is Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Quito is in the northern 1/3 of Ecuador, just south of the equator, and is ideally located on the western slope of the Andes, not too far from the Continental Divide. As indicated above, it almost goes without say that the Andes have acted as a natural barrier ultimately resulting in very distinct eastern and western slope bird communities, with elevation adding to further regional diversification. It therefore should come as no surprise that for my trip, the plan is to cover both the western and eastern slopes, and as much of the range in elevation as is possible. Two areas where we will not be able to visit on this trip include the Amazon basin (eastern slope below 300 m), and the Pacific coast including the Galapagos Islands.

The following is list of key locations where we will be staying and places we will be birding. More information on each of these sites will be published over the next few days before we depart.

Tandayapa Lodge (3 nights, 1 day of birding)
Bellavista Lodge (1 day of birding only)
Nono-Mindo Road (1 day of birding)
Rio Silanche (1 day of birding)
Mindo Gardens Lodge (2 nights)
Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1 day of birding)
Yanachoca (1 day of birding)
San Isidro Lodge (2 nights, 1 day of birding)
Papallacta Pass (1.5 days of birding)
Wild Sumaco Lodge (3 nights, 2 days birding)
Guango Lodge (0.5 days of birding only)

Until next time, happy birding.