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Ecuador and the Galapagos, Jan 2020 (1 Viewer)

Matt Bell

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8 January (morning)

It was an early start to what promised to be a top day’s birding. The lodge was noisy with birdlife: the caciques, Russet-backed Oropendola and Smooth-billed ani. Our morning’s entertainment was to be atop a tower in the forest canopy. We canoed across the lake, surrounded by White-winged Swallow and glimpsing a Rufescent Tiger-heron in one of the narrow channels. From the far side of the lake we marched through the forest for half an hour: not much to see, just a shy Snail Kite and an even shyer Great Tinamou that scarpered before we got a good look at it.

The tower, beside a huge capoc tree, was a daunting 30 meter climb, but the reward — well, sitting up above the canopy by 09:00 was quite something! Over the next two hours the birds just carried on coming. Beautiful, charismatic birds, some at close quarters, some screeching past (parrots), others perched in the distance or poking their heads out of nest-holes in the tree trunks.

As a South American newbie (previously the closest I’d been to South America was Tobago) it was a dream. The first to show were the russet-backed and Green Oropendola, which were nesting nearby. Also in the nearby trees were Black-headed Parrot (see pic). A White-throated Toucan was nesting in a tree hole about 100m away (see pic). The joy of seeing my first ever toucan was compounded by Many-banded Araçari and Ivory-billed Araçari. Yellow-tufted Woodpecker showed briefly. Occasional flights of parrots whisked past: Bronze-winged Parrot and Blue-and-yellow Macaw. Other colourful sightings were: the vivid blue Spangled Cotinga with its red throat, the lime-yellow and green Gilded Barbet, the green, yellow and blue Green-backed Trogon and the red, yellow and black Wire-tailed Manakin. The hawks were of course comparatively sober in appearance, though no less engaging: Roadside Hawk, Crane Hawk and the rather stunning White Hawk. The tower session was rounded off with Neotropical Palm-swift, Black-billed cuckoo and the spooky Bare-necked Fruitcrow.
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
Matt-
At a local college library, I've reserved Ridgley's book on Ecuador's birds so I can follow along. Ecuador is tops on my list of SA countries to visit. Looking forward to more!

Steve
 

Matt Bell

Registered User
Supporter
Matt-
At a local college library, I've reserved Ridgley's book on Ecuador's birds so I can follow along. Ecuador is tops on my list of SA countries to visit. Looking forward to more!

Steve

Thanks, Steve, I'm so pleased the report is of interest. Next installment coming soon.
Matt
 

Maffong

Well-known member
I'm reading your report with great interest too. Ecuador is where I became hooked with birding and I had to learn about all those Neotropical species by myself too. Your report reminds me of my time there and I can't wait for the day I can finally return, now with much greater knowledge about the birds in South America and birds in general

Kind regards
Mathieu
 

Matt Bell

Registered User
Supporter
8 January (afternoon)

I could have stayed up the tower all morning, but ...

After descending, we slogged back to our canoe under a blazing late morning sun. By this stage my wife was feeling a bit done in by the heat. After lunch and a siesta, I went out in a canoe without her, up one of the minor creeks.

As we entered the creek, there were Great Kiskadee on the lakeshore. Canoeing up the creeks was turning out to be a wonderful form of birding: relaxing, atmospheric, and very close to the birds. On entering the channel, we came upon a Striated Heron (one of the smaller, night-heron types). Up in the canopy were Red-bellied Macaw. And then a bird I’d been wanting to see for ages: Anhinga — yes, by no means rare, and widespread right across South and Central America, but sometimes the ordinary birds give the most pleasure.

The afternoon’s canoe ride was rounded off with the beautiful Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, Lineated Woodpecker and Speckled Chachalaca. But the top bird of the afternoon was a close sighting of a lovely Rufescent Tiger-heron. Supposedly it's a retiring bird, but this one seemed happy to show itself (see pics).

We celebrated a great day’s adventure with a few cold beers, though not too many — another early start beckoned. (During the whole trip I don’t think we once got up later than 06:30 — a sign of a good birding holiday!)
 

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Matt Bell

Registered User
Supporter
I'm reading your report with great interest too. Ecuador is where I became hooked with birding and I had to learn about all those Neotropical species by myself too. Your report reminds me of my time there and I can't wait for the day I can finally return, now with much greater knowledge about the birds in South America and birds in general

Kind regards
Mathieu

Thanks, Mathieu. Ecuador is amazing, but definitely a tough place to start learning if you're from Europe -- so much is totally unfamiliar. I was first bitten by the birding bug in Botswana, where it's a bit easier.
Matt
 

Matt Bell

Registered User
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9 January (part 1)

My wife was still feeling a bit rough, so I headed out at 04:00 with Juan and our canoeist down the Añangu Creek towards the Napo River. This was going to be a big morning: parrot salt-licks.

The advantage of setting out before dawn was seeing birds beginning to be active at their roosts. We floated past a roost of several marvellous Boat-billed Heron and Limpkin. Otherwise the creek was quiet, and I may have dozed off for a while. On reaching the confluence of the creek and the Napo River, we found Blue-grey Tanager, and then, as we set off in the motor-boat on the main river, we had Spotted Sandpiper on the riverbank.

The first of the two salt-licks was a landslide on the bank of the Napo, which had sheered away a face of raw earth full of minerals. The salt-lick has to be viewed from the main river in a rocking boat, which makes photography a bit less easy. By the time we arrived, the place was teeming with hundreds of parrots: Dusky-headed Parakeet, Blue-headed Parrot, Southern Mealy Amazon, and Yellow-crowned Amazon (see pics). It was a wonderful opportunity to see the sociable behaviour of these parrots.

After an hour or so we moved on down the Napo River. A Yellow-headed Caracara showed well on the riverbank. Greater Yellow-legs and Pied Plover were feeding on the sandflats. Good sightings of the stunning Oriole Blackbird and a couple of Black Vulture lurking on the bank.

We moored the boat and walked into the forest for our second salt-lick experience. It was a short walk of 15 minutes which yielded Tropical Kingbird, Swallow-winged Puffbird and a nice view of Common Potoo roosting perfectly on a branch.

To be continued ...
 

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Matt Bell

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9 January (part 2)

The second salt-lick was a small pool in a dark hollow at the bottom of a rock-face, overshadowed by tall primary forest. (It was very dark, so most of my photos came out horribly under-exposed.) We settled down in the rather functional concrete hide to wait for the parrots to arrive. After an hour nothing had come, though we could clearly hear (but not see) birds high up in the canopy above us. Juan reassured me that the birds were just very wary: their habit was to edge their way gingerly down the trees towards the pool, and only come to drink when they were absolutely confident it was safe. The birds would definitely come.

Eventually the most daring parrot glided down: a Scarlet Macaw, a thing of awesome beauty, its red, yellow and blue plumage (with a trace of green) standing out like a cluster of sapphires and rubies in the darkness of the dell (see pics). Soon it was joined by three of its fellows. Once the big macaws had drunk from the mineral spring, the smaller parrots followed: a swarm of Orange-cheeked Parrot and then dozens of busy Cobalt-winged Parakeet. We must have stayed about two hours, watching the changing cast of characters.

By this time it was about 11:00, so there was time for a short walk in the forest before lunch. Juan and I set off in search of who knows what. The first to show was Orange-backed Troupial, and then my first hummingbird of the trip: Great-billed Hermit. The highlight of our pre-lunch walk though was a Screaming Piha, a non-descript grey thing to look at, but absolutely living up to its vocal billing — certainly the loudest bird I’ve ever heard. We slogged up and down a couple more hills and were rewarded with Golden-headed Manakin and Blue-crowned Manakin. The path led us back to the landing, where we were greeted with curry and cold beer -- which has never tasted better.

On the slow canoe ride back to the lodge our only new bird was Great Potoo, but we also got an excellent look at a Three-toed sloth and were accompanied up the creek for about fifteen minutes by a Snail Kite. Not bad!

P.S. although the images of the Scarlet Macaws below do seem very underexposed in thumbnail form, they're OK if viewed full size on a decent monitor. Worth a look!
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
9 January (part 2)
On the slow canoe ride back to the lodge our only new bird was Great Potoo,

Matt-

After many visits to Costa Rica and Panama, I've yet to see any type of Potoo. Tell me you weren't disappointed for that to be your "only" bird!

Steve
 

Matt Bell

Registered User
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Matt-

After many visits to Costa Rica and Panama, I've yet to see any type of Potoo. Tell me you weren't disappointed for that to be your "only" bird!

Steve

Steve,

We saw Great Potoo and Common Potoo. Beautiful birds. Sadly I didn't get any shots of them, but below is a pic of Papuan Frogmouth from our trip to N. Queensland in August 2017.
Cheers,
Matt
 

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Matt Bell

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10 January

Sadly it was time to leave Napo and the Yasuni National Park, with a heavy heart but a head full of wonderful birds. We set off early, drifting back down the creek to the main river. There’s always more to see, and we’d barely scratched the surface of the Yasuni National Park. New sightings on the way down the creek were the wonderfully elegant Capped Heron, plus Black Caracara, Pygmy Kingfisher and Ruddy Pigeon.

I haven’t mentioned much of the other wildlife we saw at Napo. There were plenty of monkeys (including White-fronted Capuchin: see pic), the sloths of course, a good sighting of a roost of Proboscis Bats (see pic), two decent sightings of Giant Otters (a local speciality), plus caimans, anacondas, frogs, stick insects, spiders, ants …

Sad though we were to leave Napo, we were heading off to the Galapagos next ...
 

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Matt Bell

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11 January (morning)

We woke early in our Quito hotel. Our feet had barely touched the ground, and we were back to Quito airport for our flight to the Galapagos. Were we excited? Erm, yes.

We’d booked a seven-night cruise on a relatively small boat (max. 18 passengers). It was expensive, but we reckoned that being on a small boat would bring us closer to the wildlife and get us more personal attention from our naturalist guide. As it turned out, our guide was pretty much the best you could hope for: a very experienced marine biologist and conservationist. OK, not a birder, but then the Galapagos is about so much more than birds.

The flight took three hours, with a quick tarmac stop at Guayaquil. Touching down in the Galapagos, we got through the very rigorous customs checks at Seymour airport. (I was picked out and had my bags gone through, but the customs police were all politeness and efficiency.)

Outside the gate we met our guide and fellow passengers. We had struck lucky, in two ways. The other passengers were absolutely delightful — a couple from the Netherlands and another from Germany, and a woman in her mid-70s from the Isle of Wight, who was as tough as nails and an experienced scuba diver. There were only seven of us, which meant loads of space on the boat, no queueing, and very personal service from our guide.

While we waited for everyone to get through customs, I sniffed around for birds. Of course, one of the things you think you know about birds in the Galapagos is that you don’t really have to go after them — they come to you. And so it turned out with my first Galapagos bird — one of the black ground finches, which was brazenly hopping around on the ice-cream freezer at the airport café.

What was the finch? Most birders will have read about Peter and Rosemary Grant’s research into the finches on the island of Daphne Major. The taxonomy of the Galapagos finches has shifted this way and that in recent years, and identifying species is well beyond any first-time visitor to the islands. As our guide told us, the only people who can reliably identify Galapagos finches are “God and the Grants”.

Seymour Airport is on the flat, dry, featureless Baltra Island. A quick bus ride took us to the ferry for Santa Cruz Island, a couple of minutes across the Itabaca Channel. Crossing the channel we got our first (easily identifiable) Galapagos birds: Brown Pelican and Brown Noddy (galapagensis). We were in business!

Our next bus (a rather decrepit old thing) took us steadily up a straight road into the Santa Cruz highlands, where grey-brown scrub gave way to rich green forest and blazing sun to heavy mist. We stopped at a farm for a pleasant amble and good views of giant tortoises. It was a bit too zoo-like for my taste, but the tortoises were magnificent beasts, and there were a few decent birds: Cattle Egret, Whimbrel, Common Gallinule and the Galapagos race of Yellow Warbler. All of them were extremely confiding and utterly unfussed by our presence.
 

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Matt Bell

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11 January (afternoon)

After the tortoise farm, our bus rattled us down to Puerto Ayora on the south coast of Santa Cruz, where we were to begin our cruise. It’s a nice enough town. Everything is geared for tourism — boat trips, dives, bars, fast food, t-shirts — and it has that temporary, frontier feel about it, which rather appeals to me. But what makes Puerto Ayora utterly unique and frankly rather insane is that the streets are crawling (and I really do mean crawling) with Marine Iguanas. The traffic has to crawl too — apparently the fines for running over wildlife are eye-wateringly punitive.

From the centre of Puerto Ayora we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the edge of town, carefully picking our way between the iguanas sunbathing on the road. We saw a lone Blue-footed Booby, along with our first Galapagos endemics: Common Cactus-finch, Galapagos Mockingbird, Galapagos Flycatcher and Small Ground-Finch.

Late afternoon we convened back at the port and watched a tuna boat unload its catch. Needless to say we weren’t the only ones interested in the tuna. There were Galapagos Sealion in the harbour, Brown Pelican resting on the dockside (pictured with my wife), Magnificent Frigatebird cruising overhead and another endemic, the Lava Gull (see pic), a pair of them pottering around at our feet — remarkably cool behaviour from what is apparently the rarest gull in the world (estimated 300-600 individuals in 2015). That was a mighty convenient tick and by far the closest sighting we had of this species.

And so we embarked on our boat and set out to sea, bound for Floreana Island overnight, followed by Frigatebirds and White-vented Storm Petrel.
 

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Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
Thoroughly enjoying reading your report Matt especially the Galapagos - I didn’t realise when reading I was already on the last instalment and was rather disappointed to run out of words to read! Unbelievable such a rare (and aptly named!) gull should be so obliging.
 

Matt Bell

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Thoroughly enjoying reading your report Matt especially the Galapagos - I didn’t realise when reading I was already on the last instalment and was rather disappointed to run out of words to read! Unbelievable such a rare (and aptly named!) gull should be so obliging.

Lots more Galapagos still to come, Deb!
 

Matt Bell

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12 January

We’d booked a seven-night cruise. These week-long cruises generally do one of two circuits. We were on the western circuit, which would take us south to Floreana Island, then west round the southern tip of Isabela Island (the largest of the Galapagos), north up the western side of Isabela, with a stop at Fernandina Island, and then round the top of Isabela to Santiago Island and back to the airport at Seymour. The map below shows our route.

Each circuit has its pluses and minuses. We would miss out on the chance of seeing the last Waved Albatross of the season and were unlikely to see any Hammerheads. But the main pluses were a visit to Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island and better chances of seeing whales. That was the theory at any rate — of course, things turned out a bit differently. The Galapagos are nothing if not unpredictable.

Leaving Puerto Ayora at teatime, our ship chugged through the night, and in the morning of 12 January we found ourselves moored off Floreana Island. Our first full day acquainted us with the daily schedule for the rest of the cruise: waking at dawn and spending half an hour on the deck with a coffee, then breakfast, followed by the first trip — either a ride in a rubber dinghy or a landing. Late morning was snorkeling time, then lunch, a short siesta (mostly spent on deck looking for seabirds and cetaceans), then another snorkel, followed by another landing before drinks and dinner. Finally night-time on deck, sharing the day’s experiences over a glass or three of wine or whisky.

For our first early morning excursion, we landed at the green sand beach west of Punta Cormorant — which actually has no cormorants. But there were Blue-footed Boobies nesting in the scrubby trees at the top of the beach, and the rocks were swarming with the ubiquitous bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Our target though was the brackish lagoon just behind the beach which had a dozen or so American Flamingo (including juveniles), a pair of White-cheeked Pintail (Galapagos subsp.; see pic below), a pair of Black-necked Stilt, and a Lava Heron skulking in the mangroves at the edge of the lagoon.

Leaving the lagoon, we climbed over some cinder cones (with Small Ground-Finch) to the neighboring white-sand beach south of Punta Cormorant, for close views of female Pacific Green Turtles arriving for egg-laying or leaving after doing their business.

Late morning was spent snorkelling at Devil’s Crown, an eroded, partly submerged volcanic crater about a mile offshore. The sea round Devil's Crown was a bit rough, and the snorkeling quite challenging. Above water, the rocks had Galapagos Sealion and Swallow-tailed Gull — the world’s only nocturnal gull, with its very large black eyes and shockingly red eye-ring. On the water line we found one Great-blue Heron. But the most exciting creatures were in the 10 metres of water beneath us, a huge number of fish including a school of 29 Whitetip Reef Sharks (our guide helpfully counted them for us). We swam straight above the sharks, not in haste but also not without apprehension — it’s something I won’t forget in a hurry.

In the afternoon we cruised round the north coast of Floreana to Post-Office Bay, more of historical than natural interest, though we did meet an extremely friendly Brown Pelican on the beach. En route, in addition to the White-vented Storm Petrel, there were a few dozen Galapagos Shearwater and three or four Nazca Booby heading out to sea.

Our first full day's cruising had brought us very close to a whole range of wonderful wildlife.
 

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Matt Bell

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13 January

The next morning we found ourselves moored off the small harbour of Puerto Velasco, on the west side of Floreana. Our early morning landing at the small harbour brought us within touching distance of more Galapagos Sealions asleep on the dock and lots of Marine Iguanas (see pics). In a tree beside the dock we found a solitary Medium Tree-Finch — a good addition to our burgeoning finch tally. The main event of the morning was a ride up the side of the volcano for some more human history (the Wittmer Farm) plus tortoises (see pic) and Galapagos Flycatchers.

The afternoon was spent on a four-hour cruise from Floreana to Isabela. A great time to kick back and do some serious whale-watching — but no whales! We did see dolphins (not sure which sp) and leaping Giant Manta Ray. Our bird tally was augmented by Great Frigatebird, a family of which followed our boat, sometimes resting on the railings of the ship’s upper deck (see pic). Out to sea there were Galapagos Petrel and — yes! — a solitary Waved Albatross, probably one of the last of the season and maybe a first-year bird — the young reach adult size and leave their Galapagos nesting grounds in January.

After dinner we were treated to the sight of a pair of Galapagos Shark eerily patrolling round and round our boat. This, we discovered, was why jumping into the sea directly from the boat was not advised!
 

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