Tuesday, 12 August 2014

An Ecuadorian adventure -by Oliver Simms

One of the main advantages of being a university student is the long summers and the resulting great opportunity to travel. Unfortunately, my time at university has come to an end and the world of work with its short holiday looms. Having worked the majority of last year’s summer break, this year I was particularly determined to do something exciting. After sorting out a job that starts in September, I set about e-mailing bird lodges around the world and asking them if they needed a volunteer. I received many offers but only two were willing to offer free board and accommodation in return for work; Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica and Cabanas San Isidro in Ecuador. Having been to Costa Rica but not Ecuador, it was an easy decision for me and I gave the Costa Rica place to fellow NGB member Liam Curson (blog post to follow from him I’m sure!).

Rufescent Tiger Heron

I was told that I would be needed for 16 days to cover the administrator’s holiday but I could stay for longer if I wanted. I was also asked to try to learn a little Spanish. I booked my flights, bought my field guide, took a couple of online Spanish lessons and on the 4th July, two days after my graduation ceremony, I set off on my Ecuadorian adventure.

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

After a smooth and on-time flight, I was picked up for the two hour drive to Cabanas San Isidro, a beautiful lodge set in a beautiful cloud forest reserve on the east slope of the Andes at an altitude of 2,000m. Despite the fading light, the drive produced 3 species, 2 of which (Great Thrush and Eared Dove) were my first lifers of the trip. I was welcomed by the administrator, Alejandro, who advised me to take it easy because of the altitude but spend the first few days familiarising myself with the birds and the trails.

Carunculated Caracara (best name ever! -Jonnie)

I was up at first light and spent an hour on the balcony enjoying 10 new species, including Andean Motmot, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager and the ubiquitous Inca Jay. During the rest of the day, I walked around the garden and the forest trails seeing a total of 40 species. The hummingbirds on the feeeders were a particular highlight with the stunning Long-tailed Sylph and the boisterous Chestnut-breasted Coronet my favourites. For the next week, apart from assisting a bit with the washing up and the cleaning of the rooms, I spent most of my time birdwatching around the lodge. Most of the time I was bird watching on my own but on two occasions I was able to accompany groups with guides. Within a week, I had recorded 95 species, the vast majority of which were new for me. Particular highlights were a Tayra (a South American mustelid species) in a tree by the road, very tame Masked Trogons, two species of Antpitta coming to worms, the brilliantly named but drab Oleaginous Hemispingus and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, a bird that had always been high on my bucket list. I also found a Bat Falcon on my third afternoon, a bird I later found was the first at San Isidro for a number of years.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

White-bellied Antpitta

The 12th July saw my first experience of guiding, a German general interest group that had specifically requested a bird guide and were after seeing Cock-of-the-Rocks. Unfortunately, the target bird did not play ball but I was able to show them Golden-headed Quetzal, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and my first Smoky-brown Woodpecker and Orange-eared Tanager. The day after was my last free day before I started to act as temporary administrator of the lodge so I decided to head out by bus to San Isidro’s sister lodge at Guango at 2700m elevation. It is particularly renowned for hummingbirds and they did not disappoint with the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird the undoubted highlight. Other great birds included Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan, Andean Guan and White-capped Dipper. That evening also saw my first encounter with the mysterious San Isidro Owl, almost certainly a new species for science.

Masked Trogon (female)

The following morning saw me start my stint as the hotel administrator. This role involved me, as the only English speaking member of “staff”, welcoming the guests on arrival and being present at meal times to translate requests to the kitchen staff and to translate information about the meals to the guests. I also did a fair bit of guiding of guests and met some amazing people. I did not find the role easy given my limited Spanish and limited knowledge of the birds of the area but got by and all the guests seemed to enjoy their stay. The role did give me plenty of time to continue to explore the trails and I continued to see new species including Plushcap, Rufous-banded Owl (thanks Mitch!), Black-and-Chestnut Eagle and a flock of White-capped Tanagers that one of the guests I was supposed to be guiding got me on to! It was particularly enjoyable to bird watch with Tom, Richard, Bob and Steve from Northumberland.

San Isidro Owl

I had two days off in the 16 day stint and used these to visit different areas. The first was a bus trip to the Loreto Road in the Andean foothills, which produced such cracking birds as Torrent Duck, Red-headed Barbet, Blue-rumped Manakin and a 9 species strong Tanager flock. On my second, I hired a guide, Mauricio, to take me up to the highlands of Antisana and Papallacta. The three main targets of the day were Andean Condor, Black-faced Ibis and Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, which were all seen well. The latter was particular fortunate as the fog had rolled in but it ran just in front of my path. In total, I saw 44 new species for the trip, 40 of which were lifers.

Torrent Duck

As soon as I got to San Isidro, I realised I had 5 days at the end free and I decided to use them to visit a new area. Various ideas were considered including Mindo and Wild Sumaco but in the end I managed to secure a half price deal at Sani Lodge in the Amazon for three nights. I am particularly grateful to Simon Mitchell and Helena Craig for all the help and advice they gave me on the NGB Supporters Group.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

So on the 31st July, with 227 species on my trip list, I set out for the unappealing town of Coca, where I would stay the night. After an unpleasant 24 hours, which produced few new birds, I was picked up for the two hour boat ride, 15 minute walk and half an hour canoe to Sani Lodge. The canoe ride indicated that this was going to be a pretty special experience with new species like American Pygmy Kingfisher and Slate-coloured Hawk showing at close range. On arrival at the lodge, Hoatzins were in the Varzea scrub by the entrance and Grey-winged Trumpeters were scurrying along the deck. It was clear that Sani was a very special place.

Grey-winged Trumpeter

That afternoon, I went in a canoe round the lagoon with a guide named Domingo and this produced over 20 new species for the trip including Capped Heron and Red-bellied Macaw. For the next two days, despite being told I would have to join a general interest group, I was allocated an excellent bird guide named Pablo for the first full day with one other guest, for the second completely to myself. On both days, we birded pretty constantly, visiting the canopy tower, travelling around by canoe and trekking in the Yasuni National Park for almost 4 hours despite the heat. The birding was spectacular with 10 species of heron, 9 of raptor, 9 of parrot, 8 of woodcreeper and 3 of owl. Particular highlights were Salvin’s Curassow, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Great Potoo, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, White-throated Toucan, Barred Forest-Falcon and Black-bellied Cuckoo. I also found a winter plumaged Red Knot on one of the islands in the Napo river, which appears to be a first for the province. As well as birds, I saw 5 species of monkey, Electric Eel, Boa Constrictor and Black Caiman. It was with sadness that I had to leave for my long journey home early on my 3rd morning at this wonderful place. In only two full days, an afternoon and one hour on the last morning, I saw over 180 species and had brought my trip list to a total of 383, far beyond my expectations.

Capped Heron

I had a wonderful time and it was exactly the excitement I was looking for in my final free summer. I would like to thank Carmen, the owner of San Isidro, for providing such a wonderful opportunity and all the staff there for making my stay so enjoyable. I would also like to thank Pablo and Mauricio for being excellent guides and Yanelys at Sani Lodge for offering me the generous discount.

Golden-headed Quetzal

PS: I would highly recommend both Cabanas San Isidro and Sani Lodge as places to stay if visiting Ecuador as both are great lodges with superb bird watching. 

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics graduate from Durham university. When he is not working at Neotropical bird lodges, he likes to spend his time birding and hill walking. He is currently Project Co-ordinator of Next Generation Birders

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