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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Critically Endangered Black-breasted Puffleg

Female Black-breased Puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis)

Since the first of June I have made two trips up to Yanacocha Reserve to observe the Black-breasted Puffleg. I have written a technical article on this very rare and elusive bird as well as mentioned it in my blog on the birding areas of Ecuador. However, I would like to add some personal observations that might help others to locate and view this critically endangered species. (There is a large article on the Yanacocha Reserve in my recently published e-book on titled “Birding Northwest Ecuador”. or )

The Black-breasted Puffleg has an extremely limited range on the northern slopes of the Pichincha volcano near Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Little is known about it but there is much that has been presumed although not verified. During the months of May through September it can occasionally be sighted at the Yanacocha Reserve near Quito and the Verdecocha reserve a little further west. Outside of these months it is assumed to migrate to higher altitudes where it breeds during the months of January through March.

My first observation of the Black-breasted Puffleg was on June 5, 2012 while at the Yanacocha Reserve. I had looked for it many times in the past, during its more prominent months, but had always come away empty handed. This trip was different and I not only observed a young female but also was able to acquire several good photos. Most of all I spent much time observing this little creature in hopes of learning more about its habits and increasing my chances of encountering it again. After several emails with Jane Lyons, a local ornithologist, about my sighting, I decided to return to gather more information. On June 16 I viewed both a male and female in the same area as the first.

I will admit that my first sighting was by luck. It had everything to do with being in the correct location. The Black-breasted Puffleg does not vocalize much, a tiny chirp perhaps every few minutes while perched. It made no sound while flying other than the hum produced by its wings while fluttering from flower to flower. This is what attracted my attention and allowed me to see it for the first time. Once it was located it was a matter of following its flight, which was generally short in duration.

Ericaceae Cavendishia
This little hummingbird has a short beak and was feeding on flower buds from the surrounding trees. (Ericaceae Cavendishia) There were larger flowers in the area but it remained at the blossoms that had shorter depths. It would forage for a minute or two and then perch for several minutes. When seeking out this species it would be necessary to sit quietly for a period of time to give it a chance to fly before it can be observed. Patience is the key.

During my first visit I observed a female feeding about 2 – 3 meters off the ground and perching 2 meters high on bare branches. The day was slightly overcast but generally warm for the area. (10o C) During the second sighting I watched both a male and a female feeding in the same area but when it rested it was generally in heavy cover and no more than 1 meter from the ground. This day was cooler (7o C) and overcast with clouds rolling in during the observations.

Both sightings were in the same location along the black-breasted Puffleg trail about 50 meters from the main path. The foliage is fairly dense but opens into a clearing of roughly 20 m diameter. There were several other understory bird species in the region including Rufous Antpitta, Rufous Wren, Barred Fruiteaters and Stripe-headed Brush-finch. Both Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers could be heard higher in the trees but were never seen in contact with the Puffleg.

I know that I have not provided a lot of information but hopefully it is enough that a person might have a better chance of spotting this seldom seen bird. It is always a pleasure to observe a species of this caliber. I know of many avid birders who have searched for years without ever seeing this magnificent creature. If all goes well, with this data, a little luck and a lot of patience others may be rewarded with a peek at the Black-breasted Puffleg.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Barred Fruiteater

Male Barred Fruiteater (Pipreola arcuata)

I remember the first time I saw the Barred Fruiteater (see full article here). I was walking the Black-breasted Puffleg trail at Yanacocha Reserve when I heard some rustling in the tree above me. It was a female. I could see some movement but it was the bright orange beak and feet that helped me recognize that it was something other than the breeze affecting the leaves. She was about 6 feet over my head, sitting quietly amongst the damp moss. My position was not the greatest for observation or photography but I was afraid any sudden movement would send her on her way. So I watched and enjoyed the moment as the morning dew dripped on my neck and trickled down my back.

I often wonder why some birds will remain in these more disagreeable climates. They have wings; so why not seek a better location? I probably ponder about this most when I am fighting the wind and snow flurries up at Papallacta Pass. (I also debate why I am there.)

Female Barred Fruiteater
(Pipreola arcuata)
The Barred Fruiteater prefers the high altitude rainforest of the Andes Mountains, hiding amid the damp leaves and moss at mid heights. It is not an exceptionally active bird so it is difficult to spot in its surroundings. It is one of those species whose habits and environment need to be studied before you can point it out to someone else. Many times people will walk past, not noticing this beautiful inhabitant eyeing them from a safe perch.

Although the Barred Fruiteater can be found on both the eastern and western slopes of the Andes, I do not recall seeing it anywhere other than at Yanacocha during my explorations. There I have seen it on several occasions, generally back near the hummingbird feeders prior to the tunnel. They were not at the feeders themselves but in the heavy foliage along the paths leading from the area.

I enjoy birding in the company of others, either while guiding or just out observing with friends. But there are times when it is advantageous to bird alone. The first time I saw this handsome bird was one of them. I believe that had I been with someone else I might have missed seeing this beauty. Since then I have been able to share this experience with others by know what and where to look for this illusive bird.

Places where you can observe the Barred Fruiteater are Guango Lodge & Reserve, Huashapamba Forest Reserve, Podocarpus-Cajanuma, San Isidro Reserve, Tapichalaca Reserve, and Yanacocha Reserve.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Simple Beauty of the Blue-gray Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager of West (Traupis episcopus)

The Blue-gray Tanager is probably one of the most commonly seen and easily recognized birds of the Andes foothills in Ecuador, whether it is the western or eastern slope. It can be observed foraging in trees and gardens and predominates the activity at many fruit feeders. It is a ubiquitous passerine with a pleasant personality and a charming grace.

This is one of those birds that you can tire of seeing because of its simple colors and constant presence. Although it has a strikingly beautiful bluish gray hue, it is not as stunningly marked as other tanagers that frequent the area. One has to get over the unpretentiousness of it appearance and appreciate its classic allure.

In the Mindo valley the Blue-gray Tanager can be seen nervously gleaning the fruit trees in search of berries and other suitable morsels. But they are particularly susceptible to the siren’s call of the fruit feeders at Milpe Bird Sanctuary and Mirador Rio Blanco. Here you can see them dominating the various species as they forage for some delectable offerings. It is also quite common in the gardens of Hacienda San Vicente in the town of Mindo.

Blue-gray Tanager of East
On the eastern slopes the Blue-gray Tanager can be observed along the Loreto and Archidona Roads, traveling from Baeza to Tena. In Misahualli they can be seen frolicking in the trees along with various Squirrel Monkeys that inhabit the park in the center of town. I find the white coverlets of the eastern species of Blue-gray Tanager to give them a more striking appearance that the western race.

This beautiful passerine can be seen in large numbers as it travels in groups throughout its regions. It is also often seen in mixed flocks, foraging with other tanagers such as the Palm and Lemon-rumped on the western slope. When in gatherings they appear to blend in quietly but reveal a certain territorial aggressiveness around feeders
For more detailed information on the Blue-gray Tanager go to my HubPages article here. Also see blog articles on Hacienda San Vicente, and Milpe Bird Sanctuary for locations to observe this beautiful species. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Female Black-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes cruentatus)

I have been categorizing the thousands of photos that I have taken over the last few months trying to decide which bird to write about next. It is not an easy decision as there are so many species and each has a uniqueness that can only be revealed through close observation. I settled on the Black-cheeked Woodpecker for its beauty and the abundant opportunity for encountering this amazing bird.

The Black-cheeked Woodpecker is most often seen in the humid forests below 800 m (2,600 ft.) but it can also be observed locally in the Mindo area up to 1,500 m (5,000 ft.). It darts behind tree trunks and gleans the larger branches of tall trees but it will come out in the open for a good view and some decent photos. It can be seen in mixed flocks with tanagers and is not extremely aggressive, allowing the other species to bully them.

Male Black-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes cruentatus)
They are a colorful bird with the males and females fairly similar in markings. Look for the mid-crown to tell the difference, the male being red while the female is off-white.

The Black-cheeked Woodpecker is pretty much an insectivore but will eat fruits and berries when available. Small flocks have been known to cause significant damage to banana plantations and are considered a bane to farmers. There are tanager feeders at Milpe Bird Sanctuary and Mirador Rio Blanco and this lovely bird is known to frequent them along with the tanagers and other species.

While out walking in the lowlands and foothills of the western Andean rainforest be watchful for this magnificent woodpecker. Take a little time to observe its habits and idiosyncrasies to enjoy the full wonder of this wonderful species. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Few Notes on Some Fascinating Birds

Tawny Antpitta (Grallaria quitensis)
Over the past few days I have written technical articles on several different bird species of the Ecuadorian rainforest. Rather than repeat this information I would prefer to provide some of my own observations on this avifauna and furnish links back to the original articles for further study.

One of my favorite birds is the Tawny Antpitta. It is neither the most colorful bird nor the most obvious but it has a certain personality that makes it unique within its habitat. The Antpitta family of birds is generally very timid, hiding amongst the dense undergrowth and grasses. But the Tawny Antpitta defies this caricature and can easily be seen along roadsides and at the forest edges. At Yanacocha they have set up a feeding area where the birds can be called in to feast upon fresh worms dug up by the rangers. This little fellow enters proudly to scarf up the juicy morsels, almost oblivious to the fascinated observers. He will approach within a couple of meters showing little concern for the human interlopers. There is a certain pride and courage that is displayed while he perches on nearby branches and peruses his domain. I have yet to encounter a bird that exhibits this kind of personality. Although I have seen the Tawny Antpitta many times I will never grow tired of watching him in his natural habitat.
Ornate Flycatcher (Myiotriccus ornatus)

The Ornate Flycatcher is a cute little bird of the tropical rainforest. It is quite common around Mindo and can be found on both slopes of the Andes. It is captivating to watch them sitting on branches around the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, sallying quickly into the air to capture small insects and then returning to the branch from where they originated. They are a very colorful bird within the Tyrant Flycatcher family and are easily recognizable due to the large preocular spot that can be seen from a considerable distance.

Stout-billed Cinclodes
(Cinclodes excelsior)
Furnariids or Ovenbirds are an extremely daunting family of birds. There are over seventy-five species, not counting Woodcreepers, and can be found throughout Ecuador at all elevations. There similarities in habitats, habits and coloring make it difficult to identify the individual species, even after extended periods of observation. They are a very obscure creature, tree huggers you might say, staying close to the trunks and branches as they seek out insects and other prey. There color allows them to blend in well with their surroundings and their constant movement makes it difficult to see that pattern or peculiar difference that aids in identification. When encountering a Furnariid in the field you have to take good notes to ensure that you have guessed correctly. I tend to take as many photos of them as possible so that I can make sure of my decision on the species.

I hope this information will help on your next visit to the neotropics. Happy bird hunting. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Black-tailed Trainbearer

Black-tailed Trainbearer - Male (Lesbia victoriae)

Although there are not a great variety of birds within the city limits of Quito Ecuador, there are some species that are quite impressive.  The Black-tailed Trainbearer (please see additional article for technical information) is a hummingbird that can be encountered within the confines of the city and will leave an everlasting impression on the observer. Its long flowing tail and energetic antics are a sight to see in the bustling environment of the downtown confines.

When I first arrived in Ecuador one of my earliest memories was seeing this magnificent creature visiting the flowers around the house where I lived. I later moved to a larger home where there was much more area for this visiting neighbor. The fruit trees in the back yard were a favorite habit for the Black-tailed Trainbearer as well as the Sparkling Violetear, a larger interloper that often resulted in quarrelsome exchanges concerning territorial disputes.

When I retired I moved to a much smaller house and I was afraid that my encounters with this lovely hummer would end. My patio area is less than the size of a normal bedroom and there are few flowers other than the tiny patch outside my front door. However, I was wonderfully surprised to see my diminutive friend resting in the ficus that I had placed outside my living room window. I have since then installed a feeder in this tree so that I can view his visits while I write my articles.

A couple of months ago I was writing an article when I heard a very familiar sound directly above my head. A female Trainbearer had entered the door that I had left open for my dog Boo. She was trying furiously to escape her confines but only succeeded in beating her head repeatedly against the ceiling. I became very concerned about the health of the little creature, as I know that the metabolism of the hummingbird is such that they can become exhausted quite easily. After several frantic moments I was able to extricate her from the captivity within the house. I later notice marks on the ceiling left by tiny feathers that had been shed from the hummer’s head.

The Black-tailed Trainbearer can be very aggressive and quite territorial. I have seen them attack much larger birds in an effort to protect their treasure trove of nectar. I myself have had close encounters with them while photographing them for my writing. They can be approached rather closely, if one is cautious, and will sit quite still while you observe and record their behavior. Last summer, while taking an early morning walk down the empty streets of Quito, I was shocked to stumble across a mating pair of birds in the middle of the sidewalk of one of the normally busiest avenues of the shopping district. The male, with his elongated tail feathers separated to form a giant “V” for victory, ignored my advance and went about his routine. Unfortunately I did not have a camera to record this unique display of disconcerting behavior.

In a country that is home to over 130 different species of hummingbirds it is difficult to say exactly which one is your favorite. However, I would have to place the Black-tailed Trainbearer somewhere within the top ten for its distinctive features and outgoing personality. Whenever you have an opportunity to visit this exciting birding paradise do not pass up the occasion to spend some time observing this phenomenal bird.  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Club-winged Manakin, Tropical Rainforest Wonder

Club-winged Manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus)

When I started this blog I wanted to provide information on the various birds of Ecuador. However, what I accomplished was repost technical articles on the different species that I had already written. In an effort to dispense more pertinent material I have decided to give my personal observation on the varied birds and direct the reader to my other articles to get more technical information. I hope this makes for a more pleasurable experience.

So today I want to talk about the Club-winged Manakin, an unusual bird that inhabits the tropical rainforests of Ecuador and Columbia. For technical information on this species please see my article titled “Club-winged Manakin – Tropical Rainforest Casanova”.

Manakins are fascinating in that they are the only bird species that manifest “stridulation”, the rubbing of two specific body parts together to produce a sound. This is used in the mating rituals of the male to attract a suitable mate. When encountering a Manakin “lek”, a social meeting place for this unique creature, one can expect frantic activity and a cacophony of strange, melodious sounds.

Milpe Bird Sanctuary in the Mindo Valley is a wonderful place to encounter this captivating bird. When you arrive you need to head for the first overlook (Mirador 1). Here you will find a sign indicating the Club-winged Manakin trail. Travel this path about 100 m and you will come to a small hide where you can sit and enjoy the festivities. On my last visit I had the reserve to myself so I was able to relax and observe these lively birds during their courtship dances. If you remain quiet and still, the males will come within a few yards providing an excellent view. Since this species is often seen and not heard, this location furnishes an unprecedented opportunity for the avid birder. A Japanese movie company had just recently been there to do a documentary on the Club-winged Manakin.
Male with wings lifted
to produce mating call

The male birds are very active, jumping from branch to branch, using the stridulation of their wings to attract a curious female. Several males will be within close proximity barking out metallic sounding noise with their wings. Although these birds inhabit the sub-canopy of the tropical rainforest, with the proper equipment it is possible to record this activity with little difficulty. The mating rituals will continue for many hours, increasing in intensity if a female shows interest. The males will then compete for the affections of the feminine visitor. It is not much different than what you would see if sitting in a bar observing the courtship habits of humans.

I had a rewarding visit to Milpe and a delightful morning with the Club-winged Manakin. I visit this sanctuary quite often and I never tire of observing this unique and wonderful bird. I would recommend this trip to anyone who wishes to encounter one of the wonders of nature.