Monday, December 13, 2010

A Ridgetop in Ecuador

A new highway running northwest of Quito carries us to the Mindo region, where long forested ridges drop toward the distant coast. We are entering Pacific-slope cloudforest––verdant, lush, cool, draped with orchids, sheltering brilliant hummingbirds and giant earthworms.

Cloudforest atop the ridge at Bellavista
(Photos by Narca)

Here we are roughing it, staying at the Bellavista researchers' quarters, a mile or two from the more famous lodge frequented by birders. Defunct electrical wiring testifies that the place once held grander ambitions; now candles provide the light. Still, the shower compound boasts hot water, bedding is cozy (after that first icy plunge beneath the blankets), and the simple accommodations are comfortable enough. The price is great: $18 a night, bring your own food.

Bellavista researchers' bunks

A dining room nestled in forest

Each day here we rise before dawn, grab a quick bite by candlelight, and set out into the forest in search of its treasures. Butterflies still slumber along the roadside––easy to photograph, if we are sharp-eyed enough to spot them.

A still-sluggish Actinote butterfly

A Crested Quetzal frequents a moss-laden tree near the station. 

Crested Quetzal (Pen and ink by Narca)

The real bounty lies in intercepting a big flock of mixed bird species, and we manage to do that several times during our stay here. Curious Plate-billed Mountain Toucans study us from their lofty perches.

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Among the stranger-seeming tropical nightbirds are the potoos, camouflaged to resemble tree stumps. One is nesting along a trail between Bellavista lodge and the research station.

Common Potoo at Bellavista

High on the must-see list is the Giant Earthworm, and one morning after a rainy night, luck smiles on us. This one may have had a run-in with its nemesis, the Barred Hawk, for it is oddly truncated. But it did survive the attack.

Noel's wildest dream comes true.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Five-Antpitta Day!

Apologies, friends! Life has interfered with my getting back to this blog in a timely fashion.

Ecuador is a small jewel of a country, lying astride the Andes. Its volcanoes tower to more than 20,000 feet, and many slopes are still verdant with forest. Can any other place rival Ecuador for its brilliance of hummingbirds and tanagers? I rather doubt it.

Recently Alan and I joined our traveling buddies, Noel Snyder and Jim Shiflett, for another immersion in sweeping landscapes and exquisite biodiversity. We focused on several regions: Mindo on the northwest slope of the Andes; the cloud forest of the Yanayacu-San Isidro area; eastern foothills at Wildsumaco; hot lowland rainforest at Jatun Sacha; and (retreating from the heat!) the high expanses of Yanacocha, Papallacta Pass, Chimborazo, and Cotopaxi. I'm planning posts for all of these regions.

Let's start with Mindo and the justly famous farm of Ángel Paz, who has mastered the high art of taming antpittas! These shy creatures usually elude all but the most persistent of birders... but they have a taste for earthworms. And Ángel provides them with earthworms aplenty. He knows their individual territories within the deep forest (Ángel has preserved an extensive forest fragment on his farm.)

Ángel Paz, the grand master (all photos by Narca)

Our morning starts very early. At 3:45 (yes, AM!) we rise in our very basic lodgings at Bellavista Research Station and have a quick breakfast by candlelight. We're out the door by 4:10, pick up our new friend Carlos, and drive to kilometer 66 on the main highway to Mindo, about an hour away. Ángel meets us here and guides us through several turns and through a creek to his farm.

We don boots, skirt the food crops, and plunge immediately down the steep slope into cloud forest. The well-maintained trails can be muddy but today are mostly dry. Rope and bamboo provide a railing in the steepest reaches. Ángel's technique is simply to call the bird by the name he's given it: "¡Venga! ¡Venga, María!" and a Giant Antpitta––María, or Manuela, or José––hops onto the trail! Unbelievable. Today Manuela doesn't need to be called. She's already on the trail, waiting for her breakfast of earthworm bits.

Manuela, the Giant Antpitta

We continue, with new antpittas popping out of the forest as we enter their territories. Ángel has now tamed four species of antpitta and each appears in turn--the Moustached, the cute little Ochre-breasted named for a well-known Latina singer because of the way she swings her body from side to side.

A very small Ochre-breasted Antpitta

Moustached Antpitta

We descend all the way to the river for the fourth species, the Yellow-breasted, which appears in the tangle across the stream, then flits across the water to our side, where she dines on earthworms served on a river rock.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta

Later in the trip, Dr. Harold Greeney at Yanayacu Biological Station offers a theory about why antpittas have proved easy to tame: he believes that it's their habit to forage behind large mammals like javelinas in the forest. Based on that, birders have been using the wrong technique of quietly stalking or luring them in by tape and much patience. Instead we should have been thrashing through the forest! If anyone tests this, let us know!

I have assumed that the outing is finished at this point, but further wonders await us. Ángel seems to have set out to befriend every bird in the forest. Our next stop is a fruit feeder for toucans, tanagers and other frugivores. Suddenly, almost within touching distance, a Toucan Barbet lands at my feet--surely one of the most extravagant of Ecuador's birds!

Toucan Barbet, a dweller of cloud forest

Also at the feeder, here in this remote Ecuadorian cloud forest, we talk to others who have come for today's Antpitta Fest--and one of them is a neighbor from Portal whom we have never met. With him is Louis des Tombe, a relative from Holland who says, "Oh, I read your blog!" Quite fun.

Back up by the crops, hummingbird feeders lure in a slightly different suite of hummers than we have been seeing up on the ridge at Bellavista. Chief among these is a stunning Empress Brilliant.

But don't think the morning is over! The last hundred yards bring a very beautiful Orange-breasted Fruiteater and a tiny, striking Rufous-winged Tyrannulet. Fresh empanadas cooked by Angel's wife await us at the top.

Orange-breasted Fruiteater, a spectacular cotinga

And who would have guessed: when we return to Bellavista Lodge (en route to our more humble lodgings), a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is rummaging through the compost! It is a FIVE-antpitta day!

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta at Bellavista Lodge

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Traveling Lightly

Well, yes, the rumor floating around is true: my suitcase didn't go with us to Ecuador. And do you know what? It wasn't a problem! Amazing what we can get along without, in a pinch! Alan lent me an over-sized field shirt, and my Birkenstock sandals did quite well on those forest trails.

I'll put together some posts on Ecuador over the next week, but in the meanwhile––to whet your appetites!––here are a couple of moth photos taken at Wildsumaco. Have you ever seen anything so wild as the fur-coated green one? The second is a small, exquisite, day-flying moth which was flying along the F.A.C.E. (fah-say) Trail. If any moth experts out there can name these beasts, I'd appreciate hearing from you!

Moths at Wildsumaco (Photos by Narca)
Ceroctena amynta, a Noctuid moth
(Thanks to Sherry Nelson for identifying it!)

Erateina sp., a Geometrid moth 
(Thanks to Rich Hoyer for the ID to genus!)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tohono Chul

Tohono Chul, a marvelous botanical garden and gallery in Tucson, has invited me to be their Artist-of-the-Month in October. The show runs from October 1 - 31, and I do hope that any of you who are in Tucson in October will be able to see it. Their gardens, right now exploding with butterflies, are also superb to wander through.

In addition to this small, one-person show, Tohono Chul is starting a new exhibit called "Night Moves," which will run from October 7 into early January. My pen-and-ink, Dance of the Desert Night Lizards, will be included in the Night Moves show. A reception for their exhibits will be held on Thursday, October 7, from 5:30 - 7:30 PM, and all are invited. (Trader Joe's will donate refreshments!)

Dance of the Desert Night Lizards
(Pen and ink by Narca)

Do come sometime during October to enjoy the art and the gardens (not to mention the cafe and gift shop)!

If you'd like to learn more about Tohono Chul, here is their website:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sauk Mountain

Red Columbine on Sauk Mountain (Photos by Narca)

At the end of our stay in the Pacific Northwest, Alan and I join our friend Jim for a hike in the North Cascades, up Sauk Mountain. End-of-summer flowers cloak the slopes, attended by many worn butterflies. The narrow mountain trail switch-backs up the steep slope to a high pass, where Hoary Marmots lounge atop giant boulders. Clouds drift across the heights.

Drifting clouds on Sauk Mountain

When we have climbed high enough, we are rewarded with a view of lordly Mt. Baker, an active volcano which dominates the skyline, much as Rainier does further to the south.

Mt. Baker towers above the ridge

Crystal clear mountain air is always exhilarating, and each rise or bend of the trail brings immense vistas of the North Cascade range and the Skagit River far below. Closer at hand, parnassians and fritillaries flit past, and one new butterfly is fairly common: the tiny Anna's Blue.

See the subtle orange chevrons on these Anna's Blues?
Female Anna's Blues sport copper tones above.

One bird which surprises us is a Prairie Falcon that soars past, before spiraling above the high pass.

Prairie Falcon (Pen & ink by Narca)

We lunch at a high point, where the land drops away in steep ridges, with lakes tucked into the folds. As a child, living for much of the year in the flatlands of Texas, I hungered for the high country. Today all of my senses awaken.

View from the ridge of Sauk Mountain

Friday, September 3, 2010


What could be more fun than accompanying a 5-year-old on his first whale-watching trip?

Puget Sound off the coast of Washington is famous for its Orcas, or Killer Whales, and regular whale-watching daytrips run out of Port Townsend, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We signed up for an excursion aboard the Puget Sound Express and set out on a sunny morning, destined for Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and the waters between. Our luck was phenomenal.

A riptide raced between Lopez and San Juan islands, and no fewer than three (!) pods of the highly-social Orcas had gathered there to feed on salmon. Our boat drifted in the sea, as whales foraged, surfaced, and spy-hopped all around us. The boat's underwater microphone picked up the whales' vocalizations, and the captain broadcasted the evocative, eerie whale calls over the PA system.

Milo spots an Orca (Photos by Narca)

Young Milo kept up a litany of "There's one! There's one! There's one! ...! There's a mommie and baby!" He also was first to spot one of the two Minke Whales which graced the morning. Minkes are the smallest of the filter-feeding baleen whales, while Orcas belong to a different lineage entirely: the toothed whales and dolphins.

We were seeing family pods of resident Orcas, those which stay in the coastal waters off the Pacific Northwest and which specialize in eating fish and some squid. Other types of Orcas include transients, which feed mainly on other marine mammals and travel in smaller pods, with weaker family bonds. A third type in the northeast Pacific Ocean is the offshore population, which feeds primarily on schooling fish far offshore. These three populations are genetically distinct and may even be separate species.

Orcas forage and spyhop around the boat.

Three types or populations have also been described for Antarctica, specializing on three foods: Minke Whales; seals; and Antarctic Cod. The genetic relationships between the various Killer Whale populations are still being worked out.

Harbor Seal at Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

In addition to the whales, we enjoyed great encounters with Harbor Seals and Steller's Sea Lions. Seabirds were plentiful, especially cormorants, gulls, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets, with a few Tufted Puffins and Red-necked Phalaropes added to the mix.

Common Murre in Puget Sound

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Two Great Travel Websites

Last week in Washington State, our friend Jim introduced us to two really good websites for traveling tricks-of-the-trade. One is a blog, View from the Wing, and the other is FlyerTalk, an on-line community of frequent flyers. Both provide a wealth of information on travel-related reward programs, with advice on how to build those frequent flyer miles––and how to use them!


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Berylline Hummingbird

Just now, the nest of a Berylline Hummingbird graces Cave Creek, next to the Stewart Campground bridge. The nest was discovered by a couple from Michigan (if you read this, please tell me your names!), then refound by Raymond VanBuskirk and Michael Hilchey. We've made a couple of pilgrimages to the spot, and Alan has shown the nest to other Portaleños.

The Berylline's nest is difficult to see, tucked amid the sycamore leaves. One good vantage point is from across the road, right in the campground entrance, where you'd be blocking camper traffic if there were traffic to block. Watch for the female to zip into the nest from a foraging foray.

Well-hidden nest of a Berylline Hummingbird (Photos by Narca)

Berylline Hummingbirds are among those species whose ranges seem to be expanding north from their stronghold in Mexico. In Arizona their initial discovery was in June 1964. Over the past couple of decades, they have become almost annual in the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Chiricahua Mountains. Their nesting efforts here, where Berylline partners are few, occasionally produce hybrids. Troy Corman in The Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas notes that the partner of several hybrids appears to have been a Magnificent Hummingbird.

In 1993, Alan and I found the first Berylline in New Mexico, a female visiting a feeder at our home next to the ranchhouse in Guadalupe Canyon. I spotted her from inside the cabin, at the same time that Alan spotted her from outside, and we both rushed to tell each other. Luckily, she roosted that night in a shrub right outside our window, and I was able to obtain this photo. (If the photo looks familiar, it's because Steve Howell used it in his superb book, Hummingbirds of North America: the Photographic Guide, and Rick Taylor used it in his just-released pocket guide, Birds of Southeastern Arizona.)

Female Berylline Hummingbird in Guadalupe Canyon, NM

The rancher for whom we were working didn't want us to tell anyone of the bird's presence until she had been gone for a month, as he feared the flood of birders that the sighting might bring to his doorstep.

Today the situation is very different. Beryllines are fairly easy to see in the Santa Rita Mountains at Madera Kubo and in the Huachuca Mountains at guesthouses like Beatty's Guest Ranch and Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast, and thanks to these cordial proprietors, many a birder has savored this glittering avian gem.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Lifer

When you've birded for more than 40 years, the thrill of finding a species you've never seen before becomes a rare event indeed, unless you venture far from home into rainforest or remote oceanic islands. Yet most of the time we are right here, at home, in familiar surroundings. And the outdoors still calls, and the beauty of birds remains as fresh as ever. So we gradually shift our focus from the excitement of seeing a new species for the first time (after all, years can go by without a lifer in North America!), to an absorption in the behavior of these critters, in the patterns of their migrations, in the special chance encounters that each day in the field brings.

And while our loyalty may stay with the first organisms that inspired our wonder, we can find ourselves taking more notice of the other creatures around us. Then suddenly, we are experiencing anew the wonder of discovery, of seeing a species for the very first time, of seeing freshly, with original eyes (as Saul Bellow wrote).

One of the bonuses of taking up a new interest in some aspect of nature is that the lifers––those species savored for the very first time––come much more frequently. We also discover a new realm that has always been before us, little noticed, and that suddenly blooms in intricate detail and beauty.

Butterflies are now leading me down the garden path (even though I'll still focus first on an unrecognized bird song, or a feathered vagrant). This week brought a new lifer, right here, maybe 5 miles from my home in Portal: a Fulvia Checkerspot. And it's a beauty!

Fulvia Checkerspot (Photos by Narca)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Jeweled Lizard

Each monsoon season brings the marvelous Gila Monster out of its underground burrow in search of protein, usually bird or reptile eggs. Here in Portal near the eastern edge of its range, the beast is rather rare––or at least seen only occasionally. It was an exciting moment when Helen Snyder investigated the reason her dog was barking so emphatically. A phone call later, and several of us are braving the gnats to photograph this beautiful lizard before he decides to retreat.

Gila Monster in noble profile (Photos by Narca)

Gila Monsters are living fossils, little changed over a span of more than 10,000 years. Although their movements are usually sluggish, their potent venom generally protects them from predators. Gila Monsters can't inject venom the way snakes do; they have to release it by chewing. Once a Gila Monster grabs hold, its very powerful jaws are almost impossible to dislodge without killing the animal.

A herpetologist professor of mine once said that anyone bitten by a Gila Monster deserved it, because the victim had to have been harassing the lizard! This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Ward in the Arizona Graphic, 1899: "I have never been called to attend a case of Gila Monster bite, and I don't want to be. I think a man who is fool enough to get bitten by a Gila Monster ought to die. The creature is so sluggish and slow of movement that the victim of its bite is compelled to help largely in order to get bitten." There are actually no confirmed cases of humans being killed by a Gila Monster bite, although the bite is painful and the venom neurotoxic. The venom has been extensively studied, and one of the active peptides may inhibit tumor growth in lung cancer! Another substance based on Gila Monster saliva is effective in helping diabetics.

Tasting the air with a dark blue tongue

The beautiful lizard with its beaded scales exerts a strong fascination. Gila Monsters spend about 95% of their time underground. During mating season––May and June––males search for females by scent, using receptors in those flat, blue tongues. Female choice rules: if she rejects the male's advances, he'll get bitten for his troubles. Females lay up to a dozen eggs in July or August, and the young hatchlings emerge the following spring. They are fully venomous upon hatching. They are thought to live up to 20 years in the wild.

These are protected animals, the first venomous creature to receive legal protection, more than a half-century ago. A good telephoto lens is needed to get closeup photos without harassing them.

On my way to see the cause of the dog's frenzy, another Gila Monster crossed the road in front of the car––a very small, colorful individual. Yes, it is indeed monsoon season!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Today Alan, Noel and I seek out a spot recommended by Carol Boggs, a butterfly expert at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. We return to Crested Butte, then head over Kebler Pass (where the myriad flowers are strangely devoid of butterflies) to Erickson Springs, a national forest campground bordering Coal Creek in the Paonia Valley.

The Springs' extensive riparian habitat brings us a couple of new prizes: a Sylvan Hairstreak and a pair of mating Aphrodite Fritillaries. Plenty of willows––the hairstreak's host plant––grow along the creek.

A worn Sylvan Hairstreak, superficially resembling a blue 
(Photo by Noel Snyder)

Aphrodite Fritillaries (Photo by Noel Snyder)

Onward, to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison! Now a National Park for part of its length, this spectacular canyon drops an average of more than 95 feet each mile, over its 12-mile length within the park. At Chasm View, the Gunnison River falls 240 feet in a single mile. Formed of very hard metamorphic rock––Precambrian gneiss and schist––and liberally crosscut by lighter-colored dikes, the canyon was carved by the entrenched river at a rate of about an inch every 100 years.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Photo by Narca)

Along the entrance road, one early patch of Rabbitbrush is blooming and attracting good numbers of Mead's and Small Wood Nymphs, and Sonoran and Branded Skippers.

As we stand at the canyon's rim, gazing down more than 2700 feet to the churning river, Turkey Vultures, White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows sail effortlessly above the abyss. In the distance a serious thunderstorm is building, spawning flash flood alerts over a wide area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

Hoping to outpace at least part of the storm, we continue driving the 53-mile length of the Black Canyon toward Lake City. The road is bordered by extensive stands of Big Sagebrush. The storm is looming. And suddenly, along the edge of the road, is the bird I most wanted to see in southwestern Colorado––a Gunnison Sage Grouse! The female is picking at bits of gravel, and when we stop for a quick look (noting her black belly) and quicker photo, she scurries across the road. Soon the storm is upon us.

Female Gunnison Sage Grouse (Photo by Narca)

Above Timberline

Noel, my sister Lisa, and I venture up Nellie Creek today in a rental jeep, under brooding skies. The summer rains hold off for the entire time we hike in the alpenfields at the foot of Uncompahgre. For most of the day, the tip of the peak is swathed in cloud.

The four-mile road up Nellie Creek is narrow and rough, with few places for passing an oncoming vehicle––luckily, we don't meet any! Nellie Falls is exactly as Lisa and I remember it, a lovely two-tiered waterfall glimpsed through the aspens.

Nellie Falls (Photo by Narca)

At the end of the road is the major trail for hikers to climb 14,319-foot Uncompahgre. Lisa and I climbed it as teenagers, but we have no intention of doing that today! The tundra at the foot of the peak is too inviting.

Narca, Lisa & Uncompahgre (Photo by Noel Snyder)

The hike from the trailhead to above timberline isn't difficult. We must be adjusting to elevations in the 12-13,000 foot range. A muddy spot shows us that a Lynx has preceeded us along the trail.

Lynx tracks––see the shape and the lack of claw marks? 
(Remaining photos by Narca)

Once the day warms a bit, butterflies emerge in excellent numbers, especially the dark blizzard of Theano Alpines. Along with the Theanos are several Rocky Mountain Parnassians, Purplish Coppers, Mormon and Purplish Fritillaries, a few blues, Mead's Sulphurs, Queen Alexandra's Sulphur, and Scudder's Sulphurs.

Theano Alpine

Our main goal is the endemic Uncompahgre Fritillary, but chances are poor, and we don't find any. We are probably too late for their short, 2-week flight period. The annual census failed to turn up any at all this year. Closely related to the Dingy Fritillary of more northern climes, this butterfly is only known from the base of Uncompahgre at about 13,000 feet elevation and at a similar elevation on a nearby mountain, Red Cloud, where access is far more difficult than at Uncompahgre.

Uhler's Arctic

We do find a single weak, tattered individual of a species new to us, the Uhler's Arctic. We are also here after its main flight period, and count ourselves very lucky to have seen it. (I'm very glad to have some other association with the name "Uhler" than the blood-sucking Uhler's Kissing Bug, or Western Conenose, which inhabits the southwest!)

Marmots are lounging on a rocky ledge. We join them, creating quite a stir for the inquisitive family. One adult ignores us, continuing to gather mouthfuls of grass, while the two nearly-grown youngsters perfect their techniques of sunning and staring at strangers.

Noel suns with Yellow-bellied Marmots

Nesting right at timberline are White-crowned Sparrows, Mountain Chickadees, Gray-headed Juncos, and Gray Jays. We see a couple of uncooperative rosy finches foraging on the ground and clouds of Pine Siskins amid the fluffy seeds of composites.

Paintbrush on the Uncompahgre tundra