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Forest of the Sifaka

Forest of the Sifaka Birding in North-western Madagascar

Waking slowly, stretching languidly and reaching out their arms to take in the warmth of the early morning rays of sun, beautiful with their clean white fur contrasting with deep russet arms and thighs and ridiculously cute black “teddy-bear” faces with bright, burning amber, eyes. The Coquerel’s subspecies of Verreaux’s Sifaka is truly a beautiful animal and a wonderful vision with which to start any day. Daybreak in a new land is always exciting for the species hungry foreign birder, to wake a dawn in such a wonderfully bizarre location totally exhilarating. So it passed on August 4th, 1995 that Jeff Blincow, Nigel Goodgame and Mark Piper emerged from their tents amongst the western deciduous forest of Ampijoroa reserve, Northern Madagascar.

Madagascar is an island continent that broke away from Africa more than 120 million years ago with the result that it’s flora and fauna has developed in isolation to achieve an incredible level of endemism. It is a huge island 994 miles long by 360 miles broad at it’s widest point with a moist eastern escarpment rising to 2800 metres. Flora and fauna statistics are breathtaking, no fewer than ninety percent of it’s forest species are endemic, out of a total of 200000 living species no fewer than 150000 are unique to this island. There are 8 species of Baobab tree as opposed to only one in Africa, 450 species of frog, 260 species of reptile, 180 species of lizard, the figures go on and on. No fewer than 105 species of bird are endemic to the island with another 25 species endemic to the Malagasy region ( Madagascar, the Comoros, Mauritius, Reunion and their satellite islands ), more impressively no fewer than six endemic families occur – mesites, couas, ground rollers, cuckoo rollers, asities and vangas. The total figure of 256 species recorded on the island is poor not only in comparison with African bird diversity at the same latitude but when compared with other large tropical islands such as Borneo. However the level of endemism is very high and the island is a must for birders keen to sample as much of the planet’s bird diversity as possible.

Ampijoroa forestry station lies 71 miles south of Mahajanga in the north of the island. This station covers 49,500 acres of western domain deciduous forest on sandy soils at altitudes of 75-390 metres. Conservation of this forest is vital not only in the protection of it’s unique flora and fauna but also as a water-catchment area, it’s destruction would ruin productive rice growing areas downstream. Habitat consists of western deciduous forest, dense but with a low canopy, with sparse ground cover. We were present in the dry season so most of the trees had shed their leaves enabling relatively easy bird and mammal watching. This site can only boast a list of 103 species, as all Madagascar sites the avifauna is impoverished when compared with nearby East Africa, nevertheless what it lacks in quantity it more than matches in quality. Key target species at this site, species restricted to western domain forest, are Madagascar fish-eagle, White-breasted Mesite, and Van Dam’s Vanga. Needless to say we were extremely keen to encounter these birds and it was three very enthusiastic birders who had arrived the previous evening with just enough daylight to secure views of Madagascar Fish-eagle.

Ampijoroa forestry station lies 71 miles south of Mahajanga in the north of the island. This station covers 49,500 acres of western domain deciduous forest on sandy soils at altitudes of 75-390 metres. Conservation of this forest is vital not only in the protection of it’s unique flora and fauna but also as a water-catchment area, it’s destruction would ruin productive rice growing areas downstream. Habitat consists of western deciduous forest, dense but with a low canopy, with sparse ground cover. We were present in the dry season so most of the trees had shed their leaves enabling relatively easy bird and mammal watching. This site can only boast a list of 103 species, as all Madagascar sites the avifauna is impoverished when compared with nearby East Africa, nevertheless what it lacks in quantity it more than matches in quality. Key target species at this site, species restricted to western domain forest, are Madagascar fish-eagle, White-breasted Mesite, and Van Dam’s Vanga. Needless to say we were extremely keen to encounter these birds and it was three very enthusiastic birders who had arrived the previous evening with just enough daylight to secure views of Madagascar Fish-eagle.

Initial exploration of a nearby lake, a known site for the Eagle, had quickly delivered views of an adult perched and in flight. Follow-up visits to the lake over the next two days gave excellent studies of this imperious raptor, similar to it’s African cousin but with a dingier brown plumage and grey head. Direct persecution and habitat alteration has reduced the population of this proud bird to just 40 pairs restricted to the lakes, rivers and shorelines of the north west corner of the island, not surprisingly this species has an I.U.C.N. status of critical. Other birds around the lake included good numbers of Madagascar Bee-eater hawking insects and what was to become a regular Malagasy Kingfisher, almost identical to Malachite Kingfisher but for it’s dark bill and greener crest. As you can already see not much imagination was employed in naming many of these endemic birds!! Lazing Crocodiles in the shallows and busy Kittlitz and Three-banded Plovers evoked memories of Africa, Common Sandpipers and Greenshanks a particularly good day at Hollowell Reservoir in Northamptonshire!!

Back at the campsite we began to familiarise ourselves with the commoner endemic species – cheeky Grey-headed Lovebirds , rather dull Long-billed green sunbirds, beautiful Madagascar paradise flycatchers and bold Crested Drongos with their “punk” forehead feather tufts. All these species, like most of Madagascar’s, have Afro-tropical affinities, not surprising with the island only some 186 miles off the coast of Mozambique. However another common species around the campsite, the Madagascar Bulbul, has affinities with the Oriental region illustrating the complexity of colonisation, evolution and isolation in the formation of any island avian community. That evening we observed our first Vanga of the trip, Chabert’s Vanga, a beautiful little pied bird with bright blue orbital eye ring.

Spotlighting for lemurs is a must on any visit to Madagascar and a brief foray into the darkness revealed several Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemurs and a Western Grey Mouse Lemur. The sportive lemurs are smallish grey-brown creatures with a small round head, flattish face, sticky-out round ears and a long bushy tail. It has large goggling eyes giving what has cruelly been described in various books as a “vacant expression”. The mouse lemurs are amongst the smallest primates in the world, sensitive pointed noses, large eyes, long thin tails and a body slightly larger than a mouse, both these lemurs are nocturnal. The lemurs are a fascinating group of mammals and the most famous feature of this island, for most eco-tourists Madagascar means lemurs. Many millions of years ago there were lemur-type creatures all over the world, evidently some individuals managed to cross a young and still narrow Mozambique channel to the island where lack of competition and a variety of habitats lead to a flourishing diversity of forms. Back on the major landmasses, some 30 million years ago, monkeys evolved and, with their greater intelligence and physical attributes, they quickly upstaged the lemur-like primates. Thankfully no monkeys made it across the by then wide Mozambique channel so lemurs were left unhindered in their own evolution. Today some 30 species, depending on which taxonomy you choose to use, survive with incredibly 3 species discovered in the last 10 years. Alas some 12 species have become extinct, we can only imagine what the gorilla-sized Megaladapis looked like.

Dawn next morning found us stumbling in the halflight, eyes strained, ears trying to make sense of every unfamiliar sound. Busy little Common Newtonias, grey above with a rosy tint below, probing the canopies with companion yellow-green Common Jeries. These two species were very much the mainstay of mixed feeding flocks in the forest, so unfamiliar before but destined rapidly to be exclaimed as “just another ……”. A beautiful song, linked phrases of melodic trills, and out pops a Madagascar Magpie-Robin. This is a common and widespread forest bird and yet another species with affinities to the Oriental region. “Wa-ahh, wa-ahh, wa-ahh””, a choir of babies screaming from the treetops, what the hell!! Wow, look at that, unbelievable!! One of our most eagerly anticipated birds, a flock of excited Sickle-billed Vangas. A foot in length, white head and underparts, dark upperparts and a preposterously long and decurved bill. One second they are in view howling from the canopy, the next gone and just a memory. Magical moments like this explain the lure of birding, precious segments of time, unexpected chance encounters of pure magic. Family groups of Coquerel’s Sifaka watched us from the safety of the treetops, we encountered good numbers of this extraordinary animal. Slow methodical scanning of the forest floor eventually gave views of Red-capped Coua moving slowly and deliberately through the dry leaf litter. The couas are a subfamily within the cuckoo family with a total of nine species endemic to the island. All are medium-sized birds ranging from 38 cms to 62 cms in length with short rounded wings, long, stiff tail, and fleshy skin around the eyes. The majority of species are terrestrial. Red-capped Coua is a typically smart coua with rufous head, ultramarine blue skin around the eye, pale throat, maroon neck, light brown upperparts and rufous-tan underparts with maroon chest. Yet another stunner with an unfamiliar family name, how exciting to be proclaiming birds such as “Vanga”, “Coua”,”Newtonia” and “Jery”!

Slowly we headed towards the low plateau area of forest, a known area for White-breasted Mesite and Van Dam’s Vanga. With each step the avifauna jigsaw of this site is slowly pieced together, Madagascar Turtle Doves preening on exposed branches, Namaqua Doves flushed from sandy trails, lumbering Madagascar Coucals in the thickets, gregarious Long-billed Greenbuls and active little Souimanga Sunbirds. Binoculars are kept busy with encounters with yet more Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers including some dazzling white morph males, lots of Madagascar Bulbuls and Common Newtonias and a smattering of Crested Drongos and Long-billed Green Sunbirds. As we started our ascent of the plateau an unfamiliar shape in a low bush betrayed itself to be a Coquerel’s Coua, similar to Red-capped Coua but with an olive-green crown, much richer coloured underparts and a pink spot on the bare blue eye-patch. A good spot this as this species is restricted to the dry forests of the north-west. Onwards we trod until we reached the higher plateau, a strange low-canopied forest of eerie silence. In hushed silence we stood, waited and watched, ever vigilant. And then they appeared, two birds, almost mechanical in motion, crossing the leaf litter of the forest floor and traversing the trail right in front of us, White-breasted Mesites!! Absolutely superb birds, one of an endemic family of three species, primitive terrestrial rail-like birds. The White-breasted Mesite is a particularly handsome bird, white head with rufous cap, eye stripe and moustache, white throat, black spotted breast , chestnut underparts and grey mantle. Secretive in it’s habits, quietly probing the leaf litter and almost comical in it’s motion – body held horizontal with an emphasised to and fro motion of it’s head. A rare species restricted to just four sites and listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A repeat second performance by these birds gave unbelievable views, I can not find enough superlatives to describe these birds.

We methodically worked the grid pattern of trails within this higher forest until we chanced upon an Ashy Cuckoo-shrike, a species indicative of mixed feeding flocks. Mixed multispecies feeding flocks are a feature of most tropical forests around the world and Madagascar is no exception, when you find one you need to keep with it. Sure enough the cuckoo-shrike was part of a tiny flock, only five birds of three species but what wonderful species – two Rufous Vangas  and two Van Dam’s Vangas!! Rufous Vanga, a beautiful Vanga with black head and throat, white underparts and rich rufous upperparts and tail. Van Dam’s Vanga with black head, white underparts, grey upperparts and stout grey bill, our other target species known from only two sites and an IUCN Red List status of vulnerable. Excellent birding in superb surroundings, more excitement with two Crested Ibis flushed from the trail, prehistoric birds with bare red face patch, head and neck greenish, rufous upperparts and conspicuous white wing patches. Refused to fly choosing to run down the trail instead, every twist in the track revealed the birds just disappearing around the next corner, how bizarre these birds are, a forest-loving Ibis. Elated at the ease at which the plateau forest had revealed it’s rewards we descended back towards the campsite.

Crested Couas were spied in the treetops, arboreal couas unlike most of their relatives. Attractive with grey head and crest, light blue skin around eyes, grey upperparts, white underparts with orange breast and blue tail, a little reminiscent of a Turaco. Something scurrying around in the leaf litter, a plump little Madagascar Button-Quail showed briefly. Yet another Vanga, a stunning flash of bright blue head and upperparts against clean white underparts revealed the aptly named Blue Vanga and one of my personal favourites. The Vangas comprise 14 species which display a radical variety of bill shapes and sizes, a similar result of evolution as demonstrated by the more famous finches of the Galapagos Islands, Darwin would surely have developed similar theories on evolution had he landed on these shores. Back at the campsite we came across a group of Brown Lemurs, these of the fulvus subspecies, a brown creature with a black foxy face.

Afternoon now and the forest was very quiet, exploration of the lake area revealed a number of interesting raptors. More views of the Fish Eagle, a couple of Madagascar Buzzards and a group of Mascarene Martins, brown and streaky hirundines, mobbing a Madagascar Kestrel. A large grey bird revealed itself to be a Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, a species very similar in appearance to it’s African cousin. Out of a personal trip list total of 13 species of raptor no fewer than 11 species are endemic to this region, rich pickings for the raptor connoisseur and sufficient to send Blocker Blincow into a raptor-glut delirium. Examination of an area of marshy grazing land produced lots of kids, a sprinkling of zebu cattle and quality views of three Madagascar Sandgrouse. The existence of an endemic savannah species indicates that the island formerly had natural savannah zones and was not totally covered in forests, the vast majority of endemic species are forest birds. Two tiny Madagascar Mannakins were flushed from weedy vegetation whilst lots of Madagascar Bee-eaters were entertaining. Other denizens of the lake included Squacco Herons, Black Herons employing their umbrella method of fishing, Great White Egrets, Purple Heron, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, loitering Black Kites and a variety of waders. Evening approached and with an increase in bird activity we inspected forest either side of the main road dissecting the reserve. Views of Madagascar Cuckoo were well received, this species is supposed to spend the austral winter in East Africa and we did not expect to see it. Big and ugly Lesser Vaza Parrots croaked from the treetops, all-dark plumage with pale bills and a bare eye-patch. With the advent of dusk the nightbirds appeared, Madagascar Nightjars hawking in the half-light above the forest and a Madagascar Scops Owl tape-lured at the campsite proved a fitting finale to a wonderful day.

First light next morning found us in an area of deciduous forest close to the lake, slightly different in character to forest types explored the previous day with a taller canopy. Birds were extremely scarce with just a few sightings of the commoner species – Common Newtonias, Crested Drongos, Souimanga Sunbirds, etc. Unconcerned we continued, we were looking for one very special bird, a rare and localised species that we did not expect to see. Diligent scanning of the canopy eventually gave it’s reward, necks aching, eyes straining and bodies contorted in order to get a reasonable view of the jewel in the treetops. Schlegel’s Asity, first an immature male quickly followed by a full-plumaged male. These were brilliant birds, small Greenfinch-sized, the adult exhibiting a black head with a bright blue and green wattle, bright yellow underparts and green upperparts. This species has a scattered distribution in the dry western forests of the island and has only been recorded from a total of twelve sites. The asities were until recently considered an endemic family, some authorities now believe them to be a subfamily within the Broadbill family. All possible target species for this site had now been observed and we ambled back towards the road in a relaxed state of mind. Two more Madagascar Crested Ibis were a bonus, yet again intent on “legging it” as a means of escape, this species can be hard to catch-up with so two sightings in as many days was good going. A brief daylight sighting of a Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur sitting outside it’s sleeping quarters in a hollow tree was a memorable mammal record. Excellent studies were made on more Crested and Red-capped Couas whilst back on the road we observed a single Madagascar White-Eye in a mixed feeding flock. A last look at the lake gave much the same species as seen previously, the glorious Madagascar Fish-Eagle, the regular Madagascar Harrier-Hawk, another Madagascar Sandgrouse and lots of herons and waders.

One of the most important conservation projects at Ampijoroa is the Angonoka tortoise programme managed jointly by the Department des Eaux et Forets of the Malagasy Government and Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, we were lucky enough to be invited into the breeding compound close to the forestry station. The Angonoka Geochelone yniphora is the rarest tortoise in the world being confined to fragments of bamboo forest along the coast 120 kms south-west of Mahajanga, as a species it’s greatest threat comes from habitat destruction although it is also collected as a pet. A peculiar species in appearance with the adults displaying a long upturned projection from the front lower base of the shell, hence it’s popular English name of the ploughshare tortoise. We were shown several of the large adults and were allowed to handle a couple of the tiny offspring. The Malagasy man who invited us in and gave us a tour of the compound spoke no English but you could sense his genuine pride and excitement in the project, the breeding programme was proving successful and this coupled with local education, study of the ecology need of the tortoise and consideration of the needs of the local people encouraged one that this was one species that could be pulled back from the brink. The Jersey Wildlife Trust are very evident when it comes to conservation throughout the island and almost all the locals we spoke to seemed to know of the late Gerald Durrell. We purchased several t-shirts and with a lot of hand gestures bid our farewell.

Attention during the afternoon switched to the plateau forest, sightings of a Madagascar Sparrowhawk were welcome as this species is surprisingly scarce. A roosting Madagascar Nightjar was discovered amongst low scrub beside a wide sandy trail, typically cryptic camouflage. The forest itself, as one would expect this time of day, was very quiet but an unfamiliar but distinctive liquid “ dree-oo, dree-oo, dree-oo ” call revealed brief views of an adult male Cuckoo-Roller circling

And so passed our time at the first site on our grand tour of the island, next day was to find us on the long drive back to the capital with the even longer name, Antananarivo. Boneshaking “Indian Jones-style” flights would take us to the rainforests of the remote Masoala Peninsular where their avian prizes such as the totally awesome Helmet Vanga with it’s huge hornbill-like bill. And we would travel on to other sites, so many wonderful places, so many wonderful memories – breaching Humpback Whales just offshore and bizarre Striped Tenrecs running around our feet, beautiful Red-tailed Tropicbirds above our heads as we stood on an island of gleaming white sand, the unearthly dry spiny forest of the south-west with it’s equally bizarre Subdesert Mesites and Long-tailed Ground Rollers, the ultra-rare Yellow-Bellied Sunbird-Asity in the flowering tree at Ranomafana, so many stunning orchids, chameleons of all sizes and shapes at the entrance to Perinet, the large black and white “teddybear” Indri lemurs of Perinet with their amazing trumpeting calls, a whale-song from the trees. I could write and write about our encounters in this magical land but a million words could never convey the sense of wonderment at the complexity of the flora and fauna we observed. So many memories, such a multitude of images fill the mind, let us hope such memories may be shared by future generations as the wildlife of Madagascar is under serious threat from overpopulation and habitat destruction. The loss of any species, no matter how humble, is the ultimate crime humanity can commit, we must prize diversity of life as the greatest gift.

 

Ecuador – A Little Gem

A month in Ecuador would give any birdwatcher a real flavour of the ornithology of the whole of the Neotropics. The variety of habitats is amazing if you only consider travelling in a straight line from the west coast to the eastern border with Peru. The arid coastal zone soon gives way to lowland tropical forests followed by the huge diversity of the west Andean Slope. Two parallel chains of mountains make up the backbone of the Andes with a high and relatively dry valley in between. Then down the east Andean slope to the Amazon Basin in the Oriente. More than 80% of the families endemic to the Neotropics occur here and nearly 1600 species have been recorded making this a must for all Neotropical birders and an ideal starting country for the new comer.

Ecuador is situated on the west side of South America on the equator after which the country is named. In relative terms for South America, this is a very small country with a stable and well-developed infrastructure. The small size of this country cuts down the amount of travelling required which greatly enhances the amount of birdwatching that can be fitted in. One fifth of the road network is paved and although the road system is improving much is still poorly maintained making for interesting and entertaining driving at times, not to mention the buses and lorries that appear to have their own agendas. A two-wheeled drive would be fine for the sites described here but for the more adventurous birders a four-wheel drive would be important. A cheap, fast and exciting bus network caters well for the budget traveller and a fairly extensive air network can help travellers with restricted time.

A wide range of budget accommodation is available with many cheap hosterias, while better quality hotels can be found in most large towns. Food is available at or near all of the following sites, but some of the more remote areas require a bit of planning and stocking up with essentials before-hand is necessary.

Ecotourism is expanding all of the time on mainland Ecuador and has been in full swing for years on Galapagos. The normal range of tropical diseases occur and have to be treated with great respect. Several of the good birdwatching sites are at high altitude and so avoiding altitude sickness needs to be considered. A well-organised trip to any of the Andean countries would start in the lowlands and gradually move uphill giving time to acclimatise. The first time travellers to these altitudes will find this an interesting experience.

During two month-long trips with other British Birders I have travelled widely in Ecuador, but still there is much to see. Most of the major habitat zones can be covered in a few weeks and my choice of the top 6 sites attempts to do this. Four weeks visiting these six sites would notch up 5-600 species. With a more frantic effort, adding a few more sites but spending less time at each, a total of over 700 is possible.

The West Andean Slope – Mindo

Quito, the capital of Ecuador is within easy reach of one of the best areas for birdwatching in South America. A one hour drive on tarmac roads will take you down the west Andean slope to an area of subtropical and temperate forest around the town of Mindo.

There is sufficient accommodation and food in Mindo and good birding is to be found in all directions from the town including the road in. Travel on some of the tracks in this area is time consuming, especially for us on one occasion when we had punctures in three tyres at the same time: one inner-tube alone required eight patches. The birding habitats are situated between 5000ft and 7500ft and the scenery is not unlike mid-Wales with all but the valleys covered in forest. A snapshot of the area can be had in four-five days although two-three weeks would be needed to do the wide range of habitats justice. More than 400 species have been recorded in the Mindo area which is a good cross-section of all of the birds that can be found on the west slope. The list is phenomenal and ever expanding, but just a few of the stars are Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, Toucan-barbet, Booted Rackettail and of course Andean Cock-of the-Rock.

Toucan barbet

The High Andes – Cotopaxi NP

On a good day Cotopaxi is clearly visible from Quito. This elegant snow-topped and cone-shaped volcano is still active and is the centre piece of the Cotopaxi NP. This is an ideal site for an introduction to paramo species and can reasonably be covered in a long day out from Quito. The long entrance track gradually rises through conifers, then paramo and it is possible to drive up to a car park just beneath the snowline at 15500ft. Good birding can be had around the visitors centre, the campsites, the plateau and lake at 12500ft and the track to the high car park. The plateau and lake at 12500ft have a selection of high-altitude species giving a true flavour of what the paramo has to offer.

Andean Gull, Andean Lapwing, Carunculated Caracara, Puna Hawk are regulars and several hummingbirds can be seen the finest of which is Chimborazo Hillstar. Ground-tyrants, cinclodes and canasteros all add to the picture for birders new to the Neotropics. Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe can be seen from the track to the high car park although searching at this altitude can be very strenuous. Food is left out for Andean Condor by the park authorities making Cotopaxi the best chance to see Andean Condor in Ecuador. Be warned – harsh weather can severely reduce the number of species seen and care should be taken when planning a visit for conditions can change dramatically in minutes.

Amazonas – Sacha Lodge

A trip to the Amazon Basin is not cheap but well worth it for the experience and the tremendous variety of birds. Packages to Sacha Lodge include flights to the town of Coca and transfers by canoe down the Rio Napo to the lodge.

This rainforest lodge is well organised, ideally situated and knowledgeable guides cater for individual requirements. The surrounding variance of lowland rainforest habitats hold upwards of 500 species although less than half of these will be seen during a week long trip. Despite the large diversity of species, the birds are in very low densities and dawn and dusk birding brings forth the greatest treasures. Large numbers of parrots, antbirds, and tanagers abound in the humid conditions. One evening we were lucky to locate a feeding flock of more than fifty individuals from nineteen species. Such flocks are a true test of memory and time-management. As the flock moves by do you make notes and miss birds or try to remember the features of as many species as possible? This is where experience helps because the commoner species can be quickly identified so that the elusive speciality cannot slip by. It is possible to see more than ten cotingas including Amazonian Umbrellabird and other much sought after birds on offer are Hoatzin, Harpy Eagle and a selection of owls.

The East Andean Slope – Guacamoyos Ridge via the Papallacta Pass

A two hour car journey east from Quito rises up to the Papallacta pass and then drops down the east slope to Baeza.

The pass itself is host to several interesting species, not least the Giant Conebill that can be found in the Polylepis forests near the top. Paramo habitats similar to that at Cotopaxi are worth birding as are the remnant tracts of forest beside the road beyond the pass; Sword-billed Hummingbird and Grey-breasted Mountain-toucan should be looked for here. The south road from Baeza to Tena climbs over the Guacamoyos Ridge. Either town has sufficient accommodation and food and is well situated for access to the superb subtropical forests that bathe the slopes of this ridge. These forests are home to many species that are difficult to see elsewhere in Ecuador. Birding is from the road and just a few tracks into the forest. Several antpittas can be seen including the rare Moustached Antpitta. Tanagers and hummingbirds abound in the canopy and several other specialities like Barred Antthrush, Solitary Eagle, Dusky Piha, Black-billed Mountain-toucan and Andean Potoo are present. On a clear day the views of the Volcan Sumaco and the Upper Amazon Basin are awe-inspiring.

The South – Podocarpus NP

Podocarpus is one of the three richest National Parks for avifauna in the world because of its huge size and habitat diversity. It is situated in the south-east of the country south of the towns of Loja and Zamora. Both towns have suitable accommodation and food and both have National Park offices from which to obtain the necessary permits. Loja is close to the temperate and elfin forests at Cajanuma where one should expect to bird in the wet. On our first visit we stayed here for four days and suffered precipitation in various forms for over 90% of the time. The vehicle track up to the ranger station and several tracks beyond provide good birding. Calling antpittas bounce around the floor as hummingbirds and tanagers abound in the moss covered canopies. The bamboo is a good place to look for the mystical Ocellated Tapaculo and Bearded Guan, Imperial Snipe and Masked Saltator are other specialities nearby. Zamora is ideal for access to Bombuscara which is upper tropical forest with an Amazonian influence. Torrent Duck and Coppery-chested Jacamar are to be found near the entrance, specialities like Striped Manakin and Shrike-like Cotinga need a bit more time. Both sites allow access to the rich interior of the park although expedition planning would be required for this.

The Galapagos

Week long budget packages, including flights to and from the mainland, can be organised from Britain or travellers with more time can organise a tour in Quito.

Trips are based on-board boats and although most of the weather is generally moderate, some journeys can be rough. My first views of the nocturnal feeding Swallow-tailed Gull were gained as I chummed over the railings during my first night at sea. On such a trip it is possible to see 20 of the 25 endemics in a week plus much of the other wildlife that Galapagos is famous for. To see all the endemics, then more time and money are required on a trip offered by specialist bird companies. Charles Mockingbird is a difficult bird to see because no-one can visit the islands on which it occurs, even weighing anchor nearby is forbidden. It took considerable friendly bargaining to persuade our captain to sail slowly around one of the islands close enough to scan with binoculars. We only had ten minutes but we scored – two birds bounded across the beach to see what was going on! A total of 50 species in a week sounds incredibly low but this is truly one of the natural wonders of the world and should not be missed.

These are just six of the more well known birdwatching areas although I have not included my favourite site in Ecuador. In the south-west is a small area of remnant tropical forest known as Buenaventura. The area has just a few stands of trees either side of a track, but it attracts a stunning array of species. In one day I have seen Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Black Hawk-eagle, El Oro Parakeet and Club-winged Manakin. True to form for such enigmatic sites, during my next visit I saw a completely new set of birds including Spotted Nightingale-thrush, Golden-winged Manakin, White-tipped Sicklebill and the endemic Grey-backed Hawk.

Grey-backed Hawk

The mind boggles at what this site holds in store for my next visit. Many such sites must exist, but as yet do not have such a high profile as this one. So, when you visit Ecuador, remember, you will marvel at an unbelievable selection of birds, the diversity of forests, the aura of the high Andes and of course, you will get WET!!!

 

Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador. There are five inhabited islands and many other smaller ones all of which are volcanic in origin and have been formed recently. The archipelago is well spread out with even some of the larger islands not visible from any of the others. Visitors travel to the islands on regular flights that take one and a half hours to cross the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. There are few other places in the world that are as much as 600 miles from any other land and the large distance from the mainland has helped in the creation of the unusual flora and fauna.

Underwater topography shows the origin and development of the archipelago. The islands are tips of volcanoes coalesced to form a platform at 400 metres beneath sea level, 2-3000 metres above the ocean floor. Each island is formed by a single volcano apart from Isabela which has six major volcanoes. All Galapagos’ volcanoes are smooth and rounded in a shield shape; their basalt lava flows are hot which allow the gases to escape and the lava to flow smoothly producing shield-shaped volcanoes. On the mainland volcanoes are shaped like elegant cones, indicative of more violent eruptions. Espanola in the south-east is the oldest island at about 5 million years old, Fernandina in the west is the youngest at about 0.7 million years.

The flora and fauna show close affinities with those of South and Central America, but the difficulties in crossing 600 miles of ocean account for the paucity of animal life. There are no amphibians, few reptiles and only nine land mammals: seven rodents and two bats. The islands have a great interest to ecologists because of the high percentage of endemic forms that live in the harsh conditions; of 700 species of higher plants, 40% are endemic. Isolation is the most important feature in the formation of new species. Colonisation has been essentially by accident and many species or potential colonisers have not made it (pollinating plants and insects). Invaders find new environments, few competitors, few predators and few food plants or insects.

On arrival at San Cristobal air terminal the tameness of the avifauna was immediately apparent as a YELLOW WARBLER and a DARWIN’S FINCH were feeding inside the terminal as I collected my ruck sack. My travels around Galapagos were aboard an eight berth ocean going bath tub called the Albatros. We boarded in the late evening to the accompaniment of BROWN PELICANS, BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES and the ever present MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS. We weighed anchor at 2.00 am and set off for Espanola some five hours away. The weather was, to say the least, decidedly variable and the Albatros cut through the waves with the grace and eloquence of a dead whale. When the engine failed, the boat began to wallow in the ocean swell. My stomach finally lost control and the rest of the night was spent bent over the side rails studying the krill that lit up as the boat surged past. To cheer me up, at 5.00am I glimpsed my first views of two SWALLOW-TAILED GULLS as they flew around the rigging and the navigation lights. These are the only nocturnal gulls in the world and look like a large Sabine’s Gull.

As it got light I made a dramatic recovery from my night time vigil, chuntering over the side; for the first bird I focused on was a WAVED ALBATROSS flying close to the boat. Several more of these albatrosses were seen as we anchored close to Espanola within view of the seabird colonies.

This island’s most important ornithological feature is a colony of 12000 pairs of WAVED ALBATROSS which is nearly the whole world population, with just a few pairs nesting on islands near to mainland South America. My visit in mid-January coincided with the two month period when all of the albatrosses depart to the Humbolt Current off Peru, returning to breed in mid-March. During our walk across the island, we were fortunate to see the single juvenile albatross that had not left. Stepping on to the island we were greeted by HOOD MOCKINGBIRD; a tame, inquisitive bird endemic to this small island and one of four mockingbird species to be found on Galapagos. With only four other land-birds to be seen on Espanola it was the seabird colonies that took centre stage. BLUE-FOOTED and MASKED BOOBIES in their thousands were sitting around, apparently in no hurry, as the breeding season could last all year if necessary in the consistent climatic conditions. RED-BILLED TROPICBIRDS were breeding here in small numbers and each time they flew by their sleek,

distinctive plumage caught the eye. Of the other seabirds SWALLOW-TAILED GULLS were to be found standing around in good numbers, BROWN NODDIES were scattered along the rocky shoreline and just for a change the ever-watching eyes-in-the-sky, were contributed by a colony of GREATER FRIGATEBIRDS.

We left Espanola in the early afternoon for a seven hour cruise to Santa Fe, an island with a safe overnight anchorage. Then, next day, a short early morning journey took us to South Plaza, a small, low, flat island formed by an uplifting of the sea bed rather than an eruption. Here with the introduced predators all having been eradicated, Land Iguanas have been reintroduced and are thriving. A cliff face, 20 metres high, runs the length of the island’s southern side. Much of the life of the island is concentrated around the cliff including sealions, Marine Iguanas and a host of

seabirds. AUDUBON’S SHEARWATERS are constantly in view either entering their nests or just sitting around on the water. With no natural predators they are much more visible on their breeding grounds here, being able to visit their nests, at will, without fear of harassment. The ‘blue-riband’ species, RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD nests on South Plaza and obligingly gives views as good as the Fulmars at Hunstanton Cliffs. They fly back and forth showing off their superb plumage to it’s best, with the long tail streamers continually being buffeted by the updraft.

The climate in Galapagos is unusually dry for the equator, with low rainfall, low humidity and relatively low air and water temperatures. Generally conditions are unpredictable and often very severe in the lowlands – this is responsible for so few species surviving. There is much variability of rainfall between years, so occasional drought years place strong natural selective pressures on plants and animals. The special mix of tropical and temperate environments allowing penguins and fur seals to live side by side with cacti and tortoises.

Like most islands, Espanola and South Plaza are very inhospitable with very little rainfall leaving a dry, arid landscape. There are exceptions to this and the next island we visited, Santa Cruz, has an upland area of lush, green, tropical vegetation. A few of the islands have volcanoes that break through the cloud base over the Pacific that is constantly around 300 metres and this high land consequently enjoys climatic conditions similar to the cloud forests on the mainland. Although not the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is home to the Darwin Research Centre that is the base for all environmental research on and around the islands. They also offer their knowledge and assistance to the National Park Service and direct research in ways that may benefit the Park Service. A walk around the Darwin Centre looking at the Giant Tortoise breeding pens also produces the opportunity to see many land birds that are attracted to the drinking pools. It is possible to see up to eight of the thirteen species of DARWIN’S FINCH at these pools. All of the DARWIN’S FINCHES have drab brown, grey or black plumages and their names are little more exciting than their looks. At one pool I was able to see VEGETARIAN FINCH, CACTUS FINCH, LARGE TREE FINCH, SMALL GROUND FINCH and LARGE GROUND FINCH all drinking together; hardly electrifying but five ticks in a minute isn’t all bad. The whole archipelago has been designated a National Park with strict controls on the movement of the approximately 1000 tourists each week. The only free movement is on the five inhabited islands, including Santa Cruz, that have sizeable areas of farmland and many introduced predators that essentially exclude much of the natural flora and fauna from them. Many uninhabited islands also have introduced plants, insects and animals that have affected many of the islands’ natural environments in the 170 years since Charles Darwin’s visit in 1832. Much of the National Park Service’s time appears to be taken up by controlling the populations of introduced predators in the form of cats, rats, dogs and goats and rearing programs to ensure the survival of endangered reptiles.

Travelling further north-west through the archipelago, there were always new species to view on or near the coast line. LAVA GULL and LAVA HERON were regularly seen although in world terms their range is very restricted and their numbers are low. We reached another safe anchorage at a small island called Sombrero Chino late one afternoon. The beach was made of one inch pieces of white coral that proved to be very uncomfortable for a wet landing in bare feet. Two species that may have eluded me were to be found on this small island and fortunately both were close to where we anchored. GALAPAGOS PENGUIN breeds in the cold waters of the western islands of the archipelago, but a few non-breeders can be seen elsewhere. A group of six were to be found roosting in the sheltered waters between Sombrero Chino and the larger island of Santiago, only 100 metres away. The boat crew showed little interest in going to see them, but after a mutiny amongst the passengers had been organised, we were able to get very close views from a dingy. A pair of GALAPAGOS HAWKS from Santiago used this small island for peace and quiet to devour their food and dismantled a rat in full view of our boat as we ate our evening meal.

Sullivan Bay on Santiago is visited for its’ geological features; a vast lava field only put down 100 years ago which still has only a couple of pioneering plants taking hold on what is an otherwise barren but interesting landscape. Birds were virtually non-existant, with only AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER and WANDERING TATTLER feeding on the shoreline and of course the FRIGATEBIRDS watching from the air. Off-shore of Sullivan bay, Bartholomew Island was hardly blessed with more birds, but did have a small party of Pacific Green Turtles on the beach.

This was an unusual sight, for although there are many turtles in these waters and many pairs are seen mating just off shore, normally they only haul themselves onto the beach to lay their eggs at night.

During journeys between the islands it was always worth watching off the front of the boat for dolphins, rays and sharks. Of the seabirds to be seen, GALAPAGOS, ELLIOT’S and MADEIRAN STORM-PETRELS were regular, AUDUBON’S SHEARWATER was common and I was fortunate to see half a dozen HAWAIIAN PETREL, which is now the most endangered species of bird to be found on the Galapagos. Only a hundred years ago, HAWAIIAN or DARK-RUMPED PETREL was not uncommon in Pacific waters, but due to human disturbance and introduced predators there is only a small population left on the Galapagos and an even smaller number on the Hawaiian Islands. The Park Service spend much time and effort trying to conserve the nesting colonies in the highlands and to an extent they have been able to stabilise the small population.

My last morning was spent walking from sea-level to the highlands on San Cristobal. As one climbs through the lowlands there is virtually a Darwin’s Finch in view all the time. Many of them are high up above the vegetation and flying with purpose and vigour, although you could hardly describe the LARGE GROUND-FINCHES or LARGE TREE-FINCHES as elegant. DARK-BILLED CUCKOO, GALAPAGOS DOVE and LARGE-BILLED FLYCATCHER put in an occasional appearance, then as you reach the wet highlands, VERMILLION FLYCATCHER and the famous WOODPECKER FINCH become common. From the roadside verge I flushed a PAINT-BILLED CRAKE which then watched me very warily from some dense vegetation, this bird is probably the most recent natural arrival on the Galapagos having first been recorded in 1953. Being a recent arrival it has not acquired the lack of fear that all of the other birds have.

My strongest memories of Galapagos will undoubtedly be the effortless FRIGATEBIRDS that were always on patrol and seemingly over see everything that goes on. I had recorded 55 species of bird in a week, including most, but not all of the endemics. Perhaps I might go back some day to see the Flightless Cormorant that unfortunately only frequents the most western islands.