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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Boobies – Clowns of the Pacific Coast

Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii)
Boobies are a delightful seabird of the Pacific Coast with a name, appearance and personality that draws smiles from curious observers. A common belief is that the name derives from the Spanish slang expression bubie, signifying “dunce”. As these tropical birds are quite uninhibited, they would often land on the decks of seagoing vessels where they would be easily captured by hungry sailors and became the main course during the afternoon repast. Their jocular appearance and waggish walk add to this conception of an obtuse creature.


Although the booby is commonly attributed to the Galapagos Islands, its range is much wider. Found along the Pacific coast from northern Mexico to northern Chile, this comical seabird finds refuge in the craggy boulders and scraggly brush of small isles and rocks of the seaboard. In Ecuador, boobies can be located on the islands associated with Machalilla National Park, Isla Santa Clara in the Gulf of Guayaquil, as well as the Galapagos Archipelago. Boobies remain in the tropics while their cousins, the gannets, occupy territory further north and south.

The Booby Family of Ecuador

There are five species of Boobies residing along the coast of Ecuador and its possessions. The Blue-footed Booby is the most prominent of this family and probably photographed more than any other seabird. The Nazca and Red-footed boobies are also quite common and can be found breeding on nearby coastal islands as well as the Galapagos. The Peruvian species is an irregular visitant to the southern Ecuadorian coast and the Brown Booby is uncertain as there are few records posted.

Nazca Booby (Sula granti)

Boobies are large seabirds between 66-86.4 cm (26-34 in) in length. They have powerful pointed bills, long sharply tapered wings, narrow tails and broad webbed feet. Males and females are very similar with the voice being the best indicator of sex. Feeding on fish, they can be seen diving from great heights, as much as 100m (330 ft) and then pursuing their prey after entering the water. Air sacks within their faces cushion the impact with the water. They breed in colonies and can be seen in large flocks along the craggy cliffs of offshore islands. Nests are built on the ground, and occasionally in trees, where one or more chalky-blue eggs are laid.


Male boobies will perform a courtship dance to impress the female, spreading their wings and stomping their feet as if to a listening to a melodious serenade. Once they are mated the male will remain monogamous, although they have been know to suffer from a roving eye. Both the male and female will share the incubation of the eggs, keeping them warm with their feet. Once the eggs are hatched, the adults will catch fish, swallow them, and then regurgitate the masticated nutrient to the young. The males perform the feeding duties during the first few days of the incubation period.


Boobies are a peculiar bird that will entertain and delight the curious visitor. Relatively friendly, they can easily be approached for photos and closer contact. However, respect the rules of the reservations and the personal space of the birds. These amusing creatures can be observed on the Galapagos Islands, Isla de la Plate in the Machalilla National Park, Isla Santa Clara in the Gulf a Guayaquil, and along the rock islands along the Ecuadorian coast from Esmeraldas south. A trip to the seaside is not complete without spending some time with these clowns of the Pacific coast. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sword-billed Hummingbird – A Tropical Rainforest Wonder

Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera)

Thousands of people journey to Ecuador to marvel at the astonishing biodiversity of this tiny nation. With over 1,600 species of birds to observe, none fascinates the spectator more than the Sword-billed Hummingbird of the tropical rainforest. Its impressive snout draws attention to this unusual species making it an essential addition to the journals of adventurous travelers. One glimpse at this astounding creature and it is easily understood how it acquired its Latin name, Ensifera: sword-wielder.


Although rare, there are certain areas where the Sword-billed Hummingbird can be viewed on a regular basis. Ranging from western Venezuela to western Bolivia along the Andean slopes, these spectacular birds can be observed from altitudes of 2,500 to 3,500 (8,000 to 11,500 ft). Although scarcely seen in the Inter-Andean valley, reserves such as Pasachoa Wildlife Refuge near Quito Ecuador claim regular visits by this welcome guest.

The Sword-billed Hummingbird is a regular visitant to the feeders at Yanacocha Reserve near Quito. Along with Golden-chested and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Great Sapphirewing, Buff-winged Starfrontlets and many more, this incomparable species can be observed vying for the nectar provided by the park. Seen both hovering and perching near the feeders, it is easily recorded by photographers hoping for an award-winning image.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

The Sword-billed Hummingbird is the only species where its bill exceeds the length of its body. From the base of the beak to the tip of the tail, this creature has a total length of 13- 13.5 cm (5 – 5 ¼ in). Its total body dimension minus the tail feathers makes it less than 9 cm (3.5 in). With a bill of 90 – 100 mm (3.5 – 4 in) one can see why this bird has such an astounding appearance. The beak is slightly upswept and exceptionally long. When perched, this little jewel will keep its head elevated as if to maintain its balance and reduce the strain on its neck. 

The male of the species is a brilliant green in coloration with a slight bronzy tint to the head and neck. It exhibits a small white spot behind its eye. There is a definite blackish hue to the throat with the chest and sides of neck displaying a duller greenish gleam. The lower under-parts are a mixture of gray and glistening green. The Sword-bill has a bronze tinted tail which is long and forked. The female can be distinguished by having a more coppery bronze on the head and whitish under-parts that are thickly spotted with green. The tail is much shorter and less severely forked.


Most observers barely have a glimpse of this illusive little creature as it zips by at break-neck speed. However, this bird is easily recognizable even if viewed for a second. Its distinctive bill betrays its identity as it scurries through the forest growth. While perched this hummingbird can look similar to a twig on a tree due to its habit of elevating its head while resting. Owing to its formidable bill, the Sword-billed Hummingbird can reach deep into flowers that other birds must attack from the base. Datura flowers are at the top of its menu. Although not exceptionally vocal, it is easily noticed by the audible hum of its wings while flying or hovering near delectable corollas.


The Sword-billed Hummingbird is an essential addition to any avid bird-watchers database. While rather scarce in most areas, visitors to Quito Ecuador have an occasion to observe this precious bird within a few minutes drive from the city. Yanacocha Reserve offers a window of opportunity for anyone who loves wildlife and wishes to see one of the wonders of nature.
In addition to Yanacocha Reserve, the Sword-billed Hummingbird can be observed at Guango Lodge & Reserve, Huashapamba Forest Reserve, Pasochoa Wildlife Refuge, Podocarpus-Cajanuma, and Papallacta Pass.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Masked Flowerpiercer of the Tropical Rainforest

Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossopis Cyanea)
The Masked Flowerpiercer is a distinctive little bird in the Tanager family inhabiting the higher altitudes of the tropical rainforest. Ranging from the mountains of northern Venezuela and along the slopes of the Andes from western Venezuela down through western Bolivia, this beautiful passarine (perching bird) is common within the mountain forests and nearby gardens.

In Ecuador, the Masked Flowerpiercer can be found inhabiting the woodland shrubbery from 2,400 to 3,500 m (8,000 to 11,500 ft). It can be observed on both the eastern and western slopes and locally within the Inter-Andean valley at reserves such as Pasachoa Wildlife Refuge near Quito, Ecuador. The Masked Flowerpiercer has been encountered at higher altitudes in patches of Polylepsis (trees belonging to the rose family growing at high altitudes up to 4,500 m). In southwest Ecuador areas such as El Oro and western Loja, however, it can be seen below 2,000 m (6,500 ft). There are eight species of flowerpiercers existent in the country.

Flowerpiercers are a tiny bird compared to most tanagers. They range is length from 11.5 to 14.5 cm (4.5 to 5.75 in). The Masked and the Glossy flowerpiercers are among the largest. Their most obvious characteristic is a distinctive upturned bill that is sharply curved at the tip. Other than the White-sided and Rusty species, the males and females are relatively similar with black, gray and blue hues predominant.
The Masked Flowerpiercer is distinguished by it piercing red iris contrasting with a fairly large black mask and its intense ultramarine blue plumage. The female is similarly adorned although slightly duller in appearance. The bill has a noticeable hook at the tip, which can help to differentiate it from similar species.

Masked Flowerpiercer
Other species that inhabit the same environments with the Masked Flowerpiercer are the Bluish and the Indigo Flowerpiercers. However, the Bluish lacks the large eye patch that is so pronounced in the masked variety and has an overall blue color and a less pronounced hook to the tip of its bill. The Indigo is much scarcer and it too lacks the distinguishable facial characteristics of the former. The Blue-and-Black Tanager is similarly colored but has a black iris, a normally shaped bill and black wing and tail feathers.

The Masked Flowerpiercer is often encountered in mixed flocks, frequently dominating the bird species in many upper-elevations rainforest locations. It is regularly observed with other flowerpiercers as well as various tanager species. Feeding primarily on nectar and small fruit, it is routinely detected in the company of hummingbirds, vying for the same source of nourishment. Its hooked bill allows it to attack the flower from its base, piercing the corolla and extracting the rich sugary treasure within. When in small flocks, flowerpiercers are normally heard before being seen, their high-pitched twitterings resembling chatter. A brief moment of quiet and patience will bring them into the open where they can be seen hopping nervously among the branches of low-lying bushes.

The Masked Flowerpiercer is a lovely little passarine that inhabits the high-altitude tropical rainforest of the Ecuadorian Andes. Its cheerful song and lively antics as it feeds upon the mountain flora will delight and entertain the wandering traveler. This beautiful bird can be observed at Bellavista Forest Reserve, Cantón Rumiñahui, Copa Linga Lodge, El Cajas National Park, Guango Lodge & Reserve, Huashapamba Forest Reserve, Mindo Valley, Podocarpus-Bombuscaro & Vicinity, Podocarpus-Cajanuma, Papallacta Pass, San Isidro Reserve, Tapichalaca Reserve, Tandayapa Valley, Utuana Reserve, and Yanacocha Reserve.