Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Roadside Raptors

In addition to a number of Roadside Hawks and Swallow-tailed Kites, other fun raptors are along the roads as we drive between reserves.

Harris's Hawk is familiar from back home in southern Arizona. What a large range this hawk has, all the way from the southwestern US to central Argentina and Chile! The South American race is smaller than the two subspecies to the north. Unlike most hawks, Harris's will often hunt cooperatively in groups. This adult and immature were very close to each other, north of Jorupe Reserve.

An adult Harris's Hawk above, and an immature below
(Photos by Narca)

Just north of these Harris's Hawks, we watch a light-morph Short-tailed Hawk at close range, spiraling upward from the ground with a long, slender snake grasped in its talons. The snake is very much alive and fighting, as the Short-tail attempts to subdue it in midair. Lunch can be a dangerous affair!

Later, after we leave Buenaventura Reserve and drop into the lowlands just north of the Peruvian border (and well south of Guayaquil), these two small raptors are by the road.

Pacific Pygmy-Owl

Pacific Pygmy-Owls are the only pygmy-owl living in the lowlands west of the Andes. Their range extends from western Ecuador all the way through coastal Peru to northern Chile.

Pearl Kite male

At about the size of an American Robin, Pearl Kites are the smallest raptor in the Americas, even smaller than Tiny Hawks. Their size overlaps with that of the Little Sparrowhawk –– these are the two smallest raptors in the world.

Pearl Kites also have a large range, occurring in open savannas and tropical woodland from Central America to northern Argentina. This kite eats mainly small lizards, supplemented by a few insects.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Flowers and Butterflies at Jorupe Reserve

Although the wonderful birds claim most of our attention, I'll admit that the butterflies and flowers are just a little distracting.

Cracker butterflies live only in the Neotropics. The males make a cracking sound with their wings as part of their territorial display, thus giving the name "cracker" to the genus Hamadryas. They are well camouflaged against their usual perch on the trunk of a tree.

One of the crackers, possibly Brownish

Of these flowers, the only one I know anything about is the first, a species of milkweed. Our guide Leonidas confirms that he has seen banded caterpillars, likely of Monarch butterflies, on the plant. The other flower photos are purely for your enjoyment!

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

I suspect that this butterfly is one of the tigerwings, likely in the genus Hypothyris. Others in that group show a similar orange patch on the thorax.

 A probable tigerwing 

Rather more earthbound than the butterflies, this big snail is nonetheless quite attractive!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Birds at Jorupe Reserve

Jorupe Reserve, small as it is, protects endemic species of the Tumbesian tropical deciduous forest in southwestern Ecuador. A number of the region's birds are globally threatened because so much of their habitat has been cleared or degraded. The Jocotoco Foundation stepped in to buy this patch of high-quality forest and create Jorupe Reserve.

We rise early for our day of exploring this gem of a reserve.

White-tailed Jay (Photos by Narca)

Along the path to the dining area, stunning White-tailed Jays are having their breakfast too, as they search out hapless moths that were attracted during the night to lights along the path. These jays live in western Ecuador and northwestern Peru, and they are very like the celebrated Tufted Jays of montane Mexico.

An impressive moth, soon to be jay food

The feeders here at Urraca Lodge have their own clientele. Handsome Guayaquil Squirrels are chowing down. This squirrel, like many of the birds, lives only in a small region of southwestern Ecuador and northwestern Peru.

Guayaquil Squirrel

A Plumbeous-backed Thrush joins the feeder birds. We'd met it earlier, in Vilcabamba.

Plumbeous-backed Thrush

A couple of fine orioles live here –– the White-edged and the more widespread Yellow-tailed. We see both, but only the Yellow-tailed cooperates for the camera.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

After breakfast, Leonidas is our guide for the day. He's very experienced, and his knowledge of the reserve and its wildlife is impressive. After a quick walk along a trail to see a calling Pale-browed Tinamou, we spend the morning walking down the reserve's road toward the highway below.

The road through Jorupe Reserve

A bounty of highly-sought-after birds makes the walk exciting. We hear, but fail to see, an Ochre-bellied Dove and a number of Watkin's Antpittas (their call sounds to me like "hey, hey, hey, whatcha doin'"). The other birds are much more cooperative, and before long, we've seen Gray-backed Hawk, Gray-cheeked Parakeet, Red-masked Parakeet, five Guayaquil Woodpeckers, Rufous-necked and Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaners, Blackish-headed Spinetail, and Slaty Becard –– all of these are considered globally vulnerable, threatened or endangered!

This male One-colored Becard, working on his monumental nest, is one of three becard species we see today

Other, less vulnerable species are quite fun too. We flush a Pauraque from her nest. I quickly photograph the egg, and when we return past the spot, she is sitting tight again.

A Pauraque's egg and nest scrape

The female Pauraque has returned to her nest

In addition to the big Guayaquil Woodpecker and the beautiful Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, little Ecuadorian Piculets are show-stealers.

The Ecuadorian Piculet, a tiny woodpecker

The Blue-crowned Motmots here sound different, and indeed they are one branch of the whole Blue-crowned Motmot complex. This superspecies is likely to be split once taxonomists have finished researching the group. If this split happens, the motmot at Jorupe will likely be called the Whooping Motmot.

A Blue-crowned Motmot (for the time being)

No day in the tropics is complete without a trogon. Here the trogon of choice is the Ecuadorian Trogon, once considered a subspecies of Black-tailed Trogon. We hear and see several of the gorgeous birds, and although they don't cooperate well for the camera, you may be able to make out the white iris in these photos.

Splendid male Ecuadorian Trogons (above and below)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Heading for Jorupe

Deciduous dry forest, Tumbesian style, at Jorupe Reserve
(Photos by Narca)

Jorupe Reserve in extreme southwestern Ecuador is only a stone's throw from Peru. One of the reserves under the aegis of the Jocotoco Foundation, Jorupe protects tropical deciduous forest, a habitat that has nearly vanished. Only about 1% of Ecuador's tropical dry forest remains intact.

The reserve is tiny (only about 2 square miles) but very important, protecting an endemic-rich habitat only found here and in neighboring northwestern Peru: the Tumbesian region. I find differing reports on the number of globally-threatened birds that occur in Jorupe, but it's about 20 species.

The reserve's boundaries are all too clear

The Jocotoco Foundation has its sights set on expanding the reserve a modest amount, and on regenerating degraded habitat within the reserve. Tropical dry forest can be more easily regenerated than tropical rainforest, as long as the seed bank is intact and the soils haven't completely washed away. (The regeneration of tropical dry forest was first demonstrated in northwestern Costa Rica.)

Recovery of degraded lands around Jorupe is being achieved through an ambitious project of revegetation. Within a 5-year period, more than 110,000 new trees have been planted.

Two of Jorupe's characteristic trees are these:

A muscular and much-admired ceiba tree, Ceiba trichistandra

Cecropia trees as a group are distinctive. There are more than 60 species of cecropias, and the northern Andes Mountains are the center for their diversity and evolution. Fast-growing, many of them pioneer both natural and man-made gaps within neotropical forests. Their fruits are highly sought by birds. Many of them harbor Azteca ants, which protect their host cecropia from herbivores.

A species of silver-leaved cecropia

Community outreach is part of the conservation effort at Jorupe, and it's winning staunch supporters among the local people. Ecotourism is also benefitting local communities like nearby Macará, a border town. The now-protected watershed also delivers clean drinking water to Macará.

If you wish to help the Foundation at Jorupe or any of its other reserves, you can make tax-deductible contributions to their work through the World Land Trust in the UK, the Rainforest Trust (the US partner of World Land Trust), or the American Bird Conservancy.

The Jocotoco Foundation has an on-site ecolodge, Urraca Lodge, which is beautifully constructed, and allows visitors to be right in the thick of the action.

The balcony of our cabin at Urraca Lodge; 
mixed flocks search the trees all around the cabin.

(Here's a tip, from our very fine guide at Jorupe, Leonidas: if you want to stay in Macará, the recommended hotel is Hotel los Arrozales. We spent a night in the reserve itself, and two nights at los Arrozales, which offered breakfast and air conditioning, and seemed to cater to businessmen.)

Birds like this Comb Duck may be found in the rice fields that occupy the short distance between Macará and the Peruvian border.

Now, against the background of this important conservation work, let's go birding at Jorupe!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Vilcabamba, the Sacred Valley

Vilcabamba at dusk, from the gardens of Izhcayluma (Photos by Narca)

Vilcabamba's popularity with visitors began at least as early an Incan times, when Incan royalty came here to relax. We decide that such a venerable tradition should be continued, and spend two or three nights here ourselves. The weather is outstanding, the village small and peaceful, and the valley beautiful beneath the brooding mountains of Podocarpus National Park.

Looking south at Podocarpus National Park in the distance

I'm including Vilcabamba in the blog, mainly to highlight a very fine hostería, or inn: Hostería Izhcayluma. The grounds and decor are beautiful, and all at backpacker rates: $30 a night (with some cabins higher).

The entrance to Hostería Izhcayluma

A number of other B&Bs and small hotels are located in town, which was inundated with young backpacking travelers from many countries, much as Monteverde has become in Costa Rica, but on a smaller scale. Izhcayluma is a short 2 km south of the village, on the main road.

Fun birds roam Izchayluma's gardens, including Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, Southern Yellow Grosbeaks and Plumbeous-backed Thrushes. Here are a few others, all of them easily seen:

Amazilia Hummingbird

Blue-gray Tanager

Pacific Hornero, an ovenbird, out for a stroll

Male Saffron Finch

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Podocarpus National Park from Vilcabamba

Remember that Podocarpus National Park is very big, and can be accessed from either east or west? Earlier, we explored the eastern Bombuscaro sector. Now it's time for the western Cajanuma Sector! This region has easy access by road to the páramo and elfin forest of Podocarpus, at the highest elevations, above about 10,000 to 11,000 feet. (In the east, we hiked at lower elevations.)

Montane cloud forest at Podocarpus National Park, just below the páramo
(Photos by Narca)

This western part of the park is often misty, too, and we spend much less time here, but it's a very worthwhile region to explore.

We can't leave Podocarpus National Park without showing you a Podocarpus tree, South America's only native conifer (though it looks nothing like our more familiar pines and spruces).

Podocarpus tree

Podocarpus foliage

The Plushcap is a bamboo specialist, living at high elevations in the Andes. For a long time it confounded taxonomists, and was placed in its own family of passerines. Recently, ornithologists have moved it to the tanager family.


We are most interested in finding a small, high-altitude hummingbird, the Neblina Metaltail, but weather conspires against us. We do see several Glowing Pufflegs, another beautiful hummer, as well as Pale-naped Brush-Finches and lots of Band-tailed Pigeons, flying over the crest.

Once again, páramo flowers are lovely.

Melastomes are easy to spot by their leaf venation

Another beautiful flower of the páramo

Leaving the wind-buffeted, misty heights, we descend toward Vilcabamba, but before we leave the park a few other species catch our eye.

A migrant Broad-winged Hawk, here on its wintering grounds

Perky Cinnamon Flycatchers are fairly common

A very striking pierid, Catasticta susiana, one of the dartwhites

Monday, March 17, 2014

Other Treats at Tapichalaca

It isn't easy, but we manage to pull our attention away from the hummingbirds and Jocotoco Antpittas at Tapichalaca Reserve in southern Ecuador, and focus on other beauties of the region, both those that fly and those that do not.

The cloud forest habitat holds exquisite and fascinating plants as well. Tapichalaca Reserve abuts Podocarpus National Park, adding its 20 square miles to that park's 565 square miles. I haven't been able to identify these plants, but want to show you how beautiful they are...

...the fungi, too! (Photos by Narca)

Lichens and mosses cloak the trees

Plants in the heather family (Ericaceae) are well represented in the higher Andes, as they are in regions much farther north, like Alaska and Scotland. Think blueberries!

A heather of some sort

Check out the spotted lip on this fuzzy red bell!

This lovely plant glows in the mist; I didn't alter the color saturation at all.

Perhaps my favorite flower here: can anyone ID it?

Much of our birding is done in the rain and fog (more so than at any other location we visit on this trip to Ecuador), and taking good photos is challenging in these wet, low-light conditions.

A typical misty day in Tapichalaca

Nonetheless, we find some very fine birds! White-breasted Parakeet is another rare, range-restricted species, only known from three locations in southern Ecuador and one in adjacent northern Peru. It is a threatened species, and the Jocotoco Foundation has put up nest boxes for it too, but at a lower elevation than the nest boxes for the Golden-plumed Parakeets. White-breasted Parakeets inhabit forest in the upper tropical zone, a region that is rapidly being deforested.

A White-breasted Parakeet, through the fog

We are fortunate to see a White-bellied Antpitta, which is shy like most other antpittas. One is calling on the forested slope below us. When our guide Diego responds with a whistled imitation, the bird zooms in, but still is hard to spot in the thick undergrowth, and through the mist. White-bellied Antpittas inhabit humid montane forest, and are able to survive in degraded habitat better than most other antpittas.

White-bellied Antpitta

Back in the vicinity of the lodge, several non-hummingbirds flock to the feeders.

Masked Flowerpiercer

Rufous-naped Brush-Finches

A handsome Black-capped Hemispingus

We've enjoyed (literal) immersion in the cloud forest, and the coziness of Casa Simpson, but now it's time to return through the edge of Podocarpus National Park to Vilcabamba, and further exploration!