Friday 20 November 2015

Hola Ecuador! It's Me Again.

Notes from the World’s Worst Traveller.

Tapichalaca, somewhere in deepest, darkest Southern Ecuador. It is cold, it is wet, and I am miserable. Nothing new there then. You see, I really am the world’s worst traveller. I know, I know, I am always travelling around the world, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy travelling. Take Tapichalaca. Just to get there, took a nine, very tedious, very tortuous, hour bus ride from Quito to Cuenca. There was a stop, but I couldn’t get off and leave my luggage, since I would likely lose it. And I couldn’t get off with all my luggage, since then I would lose my seat. Let’s just say that I have a very, very steadfast bladder. From Cuenca, I headed further south – another bus, another very windy, carsickness-inducing road to Loja. Yes, I get car sick….and sea sick…..and altitude sick… see, not a good traveller. And once I got to Loja, I ended up in a hotel with no hot water. Have I mentioned yet how much I hate cold showers? Another bus, another town. Vilcabamba, a small town full of ageing American hippies and unshaven, unwashed travelling youths, bongos and all. At least I could ask for a coffee with milk and sugar and actually get a decent coffee rather than a lukewarm cup of milk and a jar of Nescafé. Now for the hard part……..
I need to get to Tapichalaca, a stop on the side of the road, Middle of Nowhere, Ecuador, somewhere on the way to deepest, darkest Peru. Now, I really didn’t want to end up in Peru, so do I trust my Spanish enough to manage to get on the right bus and then explain where I need the bus to drop me off before being abandoned at the border? Have I mentioned yet that my Spanish is almost non-existent and that what Spanish I do know is butchered by my English accent? Communication with the locals is problematic, at best. So, my alternative is to hire a taxi, a much safer option, but one that my bank account is not so keen on.   

Three hours later, and quite a few dollars poorer, my taxi drops me off at Casa Simpson, Tapichalaca Reserve, over 2500m above sea level. Angry clouds loom over the mountains, rain hammers down on the skulking, dripping, disconsolate forest, and the cold, wet air soaks through my many layers, chilling me to the bone. Not exactly most people’s picture of Ecuador, is it? And people laugh at me when I pack my thermal underwear, down jacket and heavy Gore-Tex raincoat when heading to the equator. This brings us right back to the original question - why do I do it? My husband always likes to tell me that it is the journey that is important and not the destination. Now, I don't agree with my husband on many things, and this is definitely one of them. Sod the journey - it is all about what I get to see once I have arrived. So..........TA DA! Let me introduce to you the Jocotoco! 

Jocotoco Antipitta
This adorable little chap is the reason for making that horrendous journey all the way down the backbone of Ecuador to this isolated, almost deserted, completely off the beaten tourist track, reserve called Tapichalaca. I first heard whispers of this strange and elusive bird back in 2010, when my colleague, Dr. S., and I were first touring around Ecuador investigating all the exciting opportunities that Ecuador could offer for both students and faculty alike, for learning, teaching and research. It was one of the birds on the last colour plate of "The Birds of Ecuador", which means it was added after the book was finished .............. it was
"The Book"
new, it was exciting and it had rarely been seen. Who wouldn’t want to see one? Other than Dr. S? Anyone? Well, me obviously. And so, when whispers turned to a slight possibility, I was all over it. I would find that bird! And so started my journey of pain and anguish (OK, so maybe it was a journey more of discomfort, feeling vaguely sick and bursting for the loo) as I homed in on my target. And when I first caught a glimpse of this bird, my heart soared and I did my very own little rare bird dance. That is almost as elusive and rare as the bird itself, and very few people have ever witnessed it.

I didn’t notice the bird at first – my head was bowed down, under the weight of the rain beating down on my head, my peripheral vision was down to none, due to the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket. But then my guide, who had barely said a word to me for the hour it took to reach this spot (not that he wasn’t friendly, or anything, he just didn’t speak any English and just grunted and pointed a lot and physically moved me in the direction that I was supposed to be looking in). Anyhoo, this time he stopped, squeaked and I looked up. And, lo and behold, there was this delightful, gorgeous, charming bird, all nine inches of adorableness, standing right in the middle of the path. I swear she was tapping her foot, and, if she had had one, she would have been looking at her watch, scowling and sighing, all at the same time. Apparently, we were late with her breakfast, and she was not happy! I went back three times to see the Jocotoco (Grallaria ridgelyi, named after one of the authors of the bird book), I heard her singing to her young and I saw her and her fledgling hopping around, shoving as many worms as possible into their beaks in one go. I fell in love, I smiled, I laughed and I felt all warm inside for the first time in many days. And THAT is why I travel………. 

The Jocotoco is just one of many amazing sights that I saw while tentatively venturing around Ecuador to places that I have never seen before. I visited rainforests and cloud forests, high altitude plains and snow capped mountains, sun-kissed beaches and dry, prickly deciduous forests alongside barren, apparently lifeless deserts. A land of contrasts, of hot, steamy jungles and cold, arid deserts, lush green forests, teeming with life and bare, rock strewn deserts where life struggles for its very existence. Ecuador, one small country with endless diversity in landscapes, flora and fauna. What a perfect place for anyone with a passion for nature, what a perfect place for a biologist.

Imbabura Tree Frog
The goal of my trip to Ecuador was to visit as many beautiful places as possible. No, really, this was what I was supposed to be doing as part of my sabbatical year. My goal was to visit field stations, national parks and biological reserves to investigate the logistics of carrying out student and faculty research projects at these places. Is it my fault that, generally speaking, biologists do not locate their field stations in the car park of the local Megamaxi (aka Walmart)? You really can’t blame me for the fact that biologists like pretty places, teeming with life, all green and lush, full of cuddly monkeys, adorable frogs, beautiful and colourful birds and surprisingly cute insects, can you? I also met many welcoming, kind, warm and wonderful people, most of whom knew where to find the birds or animals that I was looking for, and most of who could not speak a word of English. It was a little challenging, to say the least. But, it was also a journey of discovery and moments of pure joy. I will never forget the day when my guide and I finally managed to both identify the same bird at the same time. We had spent three days hiking up and down ant-infested trails, being pooped on by howler monkeys and eaten by ants, we had shared candy and very few words when, right at the end of my stay, we both saw a tiny little bird flitting and flirting through the undergrowth. After much pointing and shaking of heads, after much frustration and not seeing the bird, we both finally found it. We both turned to “The Book” and we both pointed to the same bird at the same time. We looked up, we smiled and we shared an International High Five. No words were needed - we had just managed to identify a Tawny-faced Gnatwren.

Pale-mandibled Aracari
So, there it is. I visited over twenty sites and identified over 540 birds (I have a list, if you are interested……), met university professors and Ecuadorian students, I travelled with a retired Ecuadorian who had spent most of his life living in America and was only just discovering his own country, I discussed field schools with Americans, Canadians and Europeans who now run ecolodges in Ecuador and I was amazed and astounded at all of the young Ecuadorian guides, whose English skills may have matched my Spanish skills, but whose knowledge about the birds and other animals of Ecuador was incredible and, wait for it……..I went birding with Bob Ridgely…….. that’s right, I call him Bob now, one of the authors of “The Book” and the discoverer of my now favourite bird, the Jocotoco.

Monday 6 October 2014

Wait.......What.......a New Post!?!

I know - I can't believe it either - but we have been trying for three years to catch these little balls of fluff, cuteness and death and we finally did!

Northern saw-whet owls.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Macro Monday - Who? Who?

Who? Who?

 A long-eared owl, that's who!

And yes, I have had far too much coffee.

 And no, I never blink!

And no, those long ear-like feathers are not my ears, those are just feathers. My ears are on either side of my head. The openings are asymmetrical: the left ear opening is higher than the right. This positioning helps me to locate prey by sound and I can catch mice in total darkness just by sound.

The nasty people who caught me in their nets (which I apparently can't see or hear and which managed to catch me THREE times), seemed to be extremely happy with the whole affair. I was definitely NOT amused!

For more More Macro Monday, go here.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Macro Monday - Wow!

I know you aren't going to believe these photos. I know you are going to think that I must have supersaturated them using Photoshop. But really, these tiny little rufous hummingbirds really are this brilliant, this shiny, this sparkling, this absolutely fabulous!

Let me introduce to you the diminutive rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). This bird is not found in some far-flung tropical rainforest, only reachable by canoe and tapir. Nope, this little beauty can be found quite easily by anyone living along the west coast of North America and down into Mexico.

 A few things you really should know about rufous here:
  1. He weighs little more than a penny. She, perhaps a nickel.
  2. They don't just eat nectar - they get their protein by consuming many very small insects.
  3. Compared to their body size, their migration flight is the longest for any bird. Some travel all the way from Alaska down to overwinter in Mexico - approx. 80,000,000 times its own body length. This compares to about 50,000,000 by the arctic tern, which migrate from pole to pole.
  4. They are damn cute!!

These birds are incredibly feisty little firecrackers, ready to take on birds of any size, even buzzing the odd bird bander at times!

For more Macro Monday, go here.

P.S. I was going to title this post "A Real Hummdinger of a Photo!", but then I found out that there are other meanings of the word hummdinger ............. you look it up if you don't know, I am not going there!

Saturday 15 December 2012

Why Do Hummingbirds Hum?

Because they don't know the words!

Tyrian metaltails

White-bellied woodstar - male

White-bellied woodstar - female

Chestnut-breasted coronet

Glowing puffleg

Hummingbirds really do know the words, they just hum because they beat their wings so rapidly (12-80 times per second)!

All photos were taken Guango Lodge, at 2700m in the cloud forest on the eastern slope of the Andean Mountains in Ecuador.

Thursday 22 November 2012

I Love Evolution

One of my favourite questions at work is "Do you believe in evolution?" Of course, it is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of science and of evidence. No-one asks whether you believe in gravity or not or whether the theory of relativity is has been made up just to annoy Christians. I go with what makes the most sense, based on scientific evidence. Well, I am a scientist, what did you expect? 

 Evolution is a topic of much controversy, not based on any sound scientific arguments, but on personal religious beliefs. To me, evolution is a thing of beauty, which usually ends up resulting in the most amazing, spell-binding organisms that are superbly adapted to their environments. Note, I specifically use the word adapted and not designed. Evolution does not give a crap about what something looks like. All that really matters is whether it works, despite what it might look like. Does the organism survive and pass on its genetic material?

There are any number of examples of incredible organisms that survive because of their obviously fantastic and wondrous abilities - the speed and agility of the cheetah, the power and all the razor-sharp teeth of the shark, the reproductive prowess of the apparently defenseless cute little bunny rabbit. I could go on...........but then you would get bored..........

Back to evolution. The thing that I love best about evolution are the bizarre and head-scratchingly odd organisms that sometimes result from natural selection. Let's face it, people, a male peacock may be a sight to behold, but can anyone seriously think a tail that cumbersome could really be a good idea? How on earth can it help the male to survive? Well, frankly, it doesn't. But, and here is the thing, it does help to get a little action with the ladies. And that is what counts with evolution - passing your genes on to the next generation.

So, let me introduce to you one of nature's little oddities - I bet you can't look at this little fella without a big smile making its way on to your face.

This little gem is a sword-billed hummingbird. It is the only bird with a bill that is longer than its body. It was found at Guango Lodge in the cloud forest of Ecuador.

You have to ask yourself how on earth a bird with such a comically long bill could actually survive. Just imagine........

Harold: "Careful Howard, you'll have someone's eye out with that!"

Howard, turning round to respond to Harold and nearly taking his head off: "Ooops, sorry mate! Didn't see you there!"

That bill really must be incredibly difficult to maneuver with, let alone hover in front of a flower for long enough to feed. So how does such a bird evolve? How does such a bird ever outcompete more agile hummingbirds with less ridiculous bills? The answer is, of course, flowers with their nectar at the bottom of stupidly long tubes that only the sword-billed hummingbird can reach!

I love evolution!

Sunday 14 October 2012

Macro Monday - Shimmering Jewels of the Cloud Forest

I have recently spent three weeks in the rainforest and cloud forest of Ecuador. Now, before you all start chirping on about how lucky I am, I would like to point out that most of the time I was running around looking after 17 students and worrying about what they might do next to maim, injure or kill themselves. It was an exhausting experience, let me tell you. Still, we managed to get all 17 students home, all in one piece, and no law suits are pending, so the trip can now be declared a success.

I did manage to get a couple of peaceful, if very rainy days, all to myself in the cloud forest. It was beautiful bliss. The rain was a blessing - I finally had an excuse to do nothing for hours on end. And, the best part, hummingbirds apparently don't care about the rain. These shimmering jewels of the cloud forest went about their frenetic activity despite the torrents of rain falling from the leaden skies. What a joy they were, streaks of bright, radiant colour darting and flitting through the air, lighting up the dark forest like random Christmas lights strung up on the trees all around. Miniature rainbows, vibrating the air with their impossibly fast wings, making the air sing their song with no words.

I just loved every single one of the feisty, fierce, seemingly fragile fragments of light and beauty.

I did not love how difficult it was to capture the beauty of the fast little buggers with my camera. That was as frustrating as trying to pass a camel through the eye of a needle!

For more Macro Monday, go here.

P.S. I think these little spitfires are Tyrian metaltails, but I could be wrong. My bird ID is about as bad as my DIY - no, I take that back. Nothing is as bad as my DIY!

Sunday 23 September 2012

Macro Monday - Creeper

No, not creepy, but creeper - this adorable brown creeper (Certhia americana). This happens to be one of my favourite birds. I have no idea why, but I like little birds with lots of attitude. These cute little guys always look as if they are scowling at the camera and always look very annoyed to see you. I just love that!

 These birds are common in mature coniferous woodlands, but can be found in mixed woodlands in suburban habitats. Look for them spiralling up around tree trunks, searching in crevices for insects and spiders. These tiny little birds are full of energy and are always on the go and so can be difficult to spot and even more difficult to photograph!

For more Macro Monday, go here.
For I Heart Macro, go here.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Have Aliens Landed?

I have to say, I am getting a little tired of this Juneuary weather. Some sun might be nice.......

Still, it means that I am not out birding, which means that I can do "things" around the house. This generally involves installing doors of some description, drywalling or putting up shelving and usually ends up with me in a foetal position on the floor, wimpering and crying, having first put enough change in the swear box to fund a nice holiday in Hawaii. If you haven't got it yet, DIY and I are NOT friends.....

So, since I have just acquired six delightful new companions, I thought I would return to the much safer and less swear-wordy and tear-inducing pastime of macro photography. And here, for your veiwing pleasure (or nighmare-inducing terror), is the result:

And no, it is not really an alien - rather a giant prickly stick insect, Extatosoma tiaratum, all the way from its native Australia (well, to be honest, the local pet store in Ladner, British Columbia).

For those of you with a photographic inclination, the photo was taken with my Nikon D80, 105mm macro lens and this one image is actually a composite of 17 images stacked on top of one another using Helicon Focus stacking software - hence the imprint on the image. I am not actually deliberately advertising the software, I just haven't got around to paying for it yet.........

For More Macro Mondays - go here

Thursday 3 May 2012


Hmmmmm - I fear I might be getting a bit boring. A bit too birdy nerdy, perhaps? It seems that recently I have only posted photos of birds. Birds, birds and more birds. Admittedly, they are all very beautiful birds, but I fear I may be becoming a one-subject wonder. Or perhaps a one subject bore?

Oh well, since there doesn't seem to be much else happening in my life at the moment, I shall have to stick with the birds. Two gorgeous, but slightly different yellow-rumped warblers - can you spot the difference?

Audubon's warbler (Dendroica coronata auduboni)

Myrtle warbler (Dendroica coronata coronata)
On a positive note - I have unpacked 6 more boxes this week! I know, still unpacking boxes after being here for near-as-damn-it two years. I dare anyone to ask me how the renovations are going.........

World Bird Wednesday