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January 29, 2011 / stephanie

Ecuador Adventures 7: back to the lowlands

Day 10. December 13, 2010. Although I would later sorely miss the peace and quiet at La Casita, we were ready to move on and bird the lowlands surrounding the village of El Suspiro. We packed up our belongings and the local helpers strapped everything back on the mules. For only my third time riding horseback, it was a little nerve-wracking going down the steep parts of the mountain, but I just held on tight and put my faith in the mules who had been trekking up and down these hills all their lives. The skies were clear for our trek down, so we all were smiling, thinking that we were leaving the heavy rains of the high altitudes behind.

Once we made it back to the village of El Suspiro, we settled in at the village shop and had a few cervezas. A boy that lived there came by and showed off his pet, which happened to be a Rufous-headed Chachalaca that he raised from an egg. These chicken-like native birds are relatively common in the area, but are decreasing in number and are officially listed as having a “vulnerable” status, meaning one step below being endangered. We felt pretty lucky to be in such close presence to this noisy, but otherwise elusive species. And, as Dusti pointed out, if this boy could raise Chachalacas from eggs by himself then the birds have a good chance of recovering their numbers if people ever had to turn to captive-rearing and releasing them.

Village boy with his pet Chachalaca

Our house in El Suspiro

Our back porch in El Suspiro

Making our home in El Suspiro was much more comfortable than at La Casita. We had beds! Indoor plumbing! A lovely back porch with a beautiful view of the green valley below. It did come at a cost though, which we didn’t find out until we were all tucked in under our mosquito nets. The village dogs, which mostly were found lying around sleeping all day, liked to congregate at night and bark right outside our house. The barking woke up the incredibly loud peacocks that were sleeping on the roof (what? why did there have to be peacocks??) And then when you thought it was all about to be over the roosters would sound their alarms as well. After the worst night of sleep of the trip, we all dragged our feet out of bed around dawn for breakfast. We had a long day ahead. We completed a survey of the area’s birds and then set up 20 more mist nets in the dense scrubby dry forest. After tramping up and down the big hill to our study site, the local children welcomed us back and pleaded for us to come play with them. I could hardly keep up with their endless amounts of energy and the difficulties of the language barrier, but we learned some of the local games, the boys played soccer together, and we also set up a few educational activities. My favorite activity was when we all went birding together and tried to teach the kids some of the names of the birds. I was impressed with their enthusiasm, their ability to find and point out birds, and that they already knew the general names of different groups of birds (Gallinazo for Vulture, Garceta for Egret, and Paloma for Dove).

Leading my group of young birders

I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to grow up in a place with such rich species diversity. Especially since the first field guide only came out in the last decade, and on top of that, hauling it around was like carrying a brick! It was a little intimidating learning the birds there, but I think I did a pretty good job in the short time that I was there.

Since coming down to the lowlands, we got to meet a lot of fun and new birds, like Mot-mots and Scythebills, along with some old favorites, the Gray-and-gold Warblers and Plain Antvireos. The first day of banding in the lowlands we yielded a successful total of 73 captures and 19 species. The most exciting bird of the day being the Pacific Pygmy-owl. These owls are absolutely tiny and are the smallest owls in the world if not for the somehow tinier Elf Owls. I could hardly contain myself when I saw one caught in the net just after dawn. Then I remembered that owls come complete with some dangerous weaponry and we didn’t even have the proper tools for preventing ourselves from being bitten — oops. Oh well. There was a little bit of damage to my fingers, but I couldn’t be happier to band my first owl. I also got to band my first endangered species, the Blackish-headed Spinetail along with a vulnerable species, the Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner. By the way, in the USA you need a special permit to band endangered species, but south of the border there aren’t any such restrictions that I know of.

Day 2 of banding in the lowlands, we were reminded that the rain was not finished with us yet. It poured all night, which silenced the dogs and allowed us to sleep in until 6:30! We got a late start but ended up with an impressive 79 birds and 22 species. We also caught several new species such as seven Variable Seedeaters (we had zero the day before), a Necklaced Spinetail, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-tyrants, and two Red-eyed Vireos. The interesting thing about the vireos is that I had banded them before in both Wisconsin and Texas, so they were familiar friends. Although Red-eyed Vireos migrate to the tropics, the ones we captured appeared to be breeding and were supposedly part of a non-migratory subspecies. Dusti said that the subspecies in this area though had brown eyes instead of red. Oddly enough, our birds had red eyes! We also caught a subspecies of Streaked Saltator that was not supposed to be there. Even stranger, it had blue eyes, a trait that is not even mentioned in the book! Another interesting fact that was not in the book, I learned from experience that Spinetails have a strong musky odor! Why is that? I have no idea. It all goes to show that we still have a long ways to go and a lot to learn about the birds of South America.

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