Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The bird whisperer

In the pre-dawn darkness, Angel Paz leads our group down a steep, muddy path into the Ecuadorian rainforest. At the end of the trail, we plant our tripods behind a simple blind made of branches and point our lenses at ... well, not much. We can barely make out the shapes of trees in the fog. So we wait in silence.

Before the first hint of daylight penetrates the forest, we hear them. It's a raucous, guttural sound that reminds me a little of scarlet macaws. After a few minutes we begin to see movement. Something's there, we just can't see what it is. So far it's mostly just swaying branches and occasional falling leaves. As more birds arrive, the noise level escalates, with grunts, squawks, and squeals that sound like nothing I've ever heard. My field guide to the birds of Ecuador says it sounds like pigs, and I guess that's as good a description as any.

Andean cock-of-the-rock

With a little more light we can see flashes of white, black, and scarlet as the males fly from tree to tree, shaking branches and calling out to one another. They're competing for the best spot to show off for the females, who wisely stay out of sight. For a photographer it's frustrating, as the birds always seem to be partially or completely hidden by leaves. Finally a male lands on a branch with an unobstructed view. It's not an ideal shot, but with these birds and in this light, it's the best we're going to get. By sunrise, the birds have finished their display and disappeared into the forest.

The area we're watching is called a lek - a place where birds congregate during mating season. The bird we've come to see is the Andean cock-of-the-rock, one of the most difficult birds to photograph that I've encountered.

Angel Paz and friend

Brothers Angel and Rodrigo Paz make their living as bird guides, and they're remarkably good at it. Together they own and manage Refugio Paz de las Aves, 300 or so acres of protected habitat on the western slopes of the Andes. In recent years their refuge has become a favorite of serious birders from around the world, thanks to their ability to locate hard-to-find species using a combination of calls, feeders, and extensive knowledge of bird behavior.

After leaving the lek, we followed Angel on other paths into the forest, where our subjects included wood quail, fruit-eaters, guans, barbets, tanagers, and three species of antpittas – two of them on IUCN's Red List of threatened and endangered species.

Ochre-breasted antpitta

One of the more memorable events came near the end of our visit. A small group, some with cameras and others with binoculars and notebooks, was sitting on a bench near a hummingbird feeder. We watched and photographed several species, including the booted racket-tail, green violet-ear, and velvet purple coronet. The star of the show, the one that everyone wanted to see, was the empress brilliant, a large, beautiful, and somewhat uncommon rainforest hummer. We kept seeing them, but they never seemed to stay in one place long enough for a photo, and the view was often obstructed by leaves, branches, or the feeder itself.

Eventually a gorgeous male landed on a branch, out in the open, with a clear view and a clean background. Just one problem – it was facing away from us. We could see its deeply forked bronze tail and the rich metallic green of its back, but we were missing out on the glittering golden-green of its face and belly, and the shining purple patch on its throat. A couple of us commented that it was facing the wrong way, and someone jokingly asked Angel if he could get it to turn around. As we laughed, Angel stood up and walked toward the bird. When he neared the branch, he raised a hand and made a swirling motion in the air. Right on cue, the bird turned to face us and we got the photos we had asked for.

Now, I could say a lot about Angel's knowledge of bird behavior. I can point out that he understands how to pique a bird's curiosity, and that he knows how close he can approach without turning that curiosity into fear and flight. But we all saw what happened: someone asked him to make the bird turn around, he waved his hand, and the bird turned around.

I'll just leave it at that.

Empress brilliant

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shining sunbeams

If you've spent any time watching a hummingbird feeder, you know how aggressive those little birds can be. In my own backyard, I've watched as one or more Anna's hummingbirds tries to monopolize the feeder, forcing other birds to settle for a quick sip before they're chased away.

But nothing prepared me for Ecuador's shining sunbeam, Aglaeactis cupripennis, the most aggressive hummer I've ever seen. Larger than most, it chased away every other species that tried to approach. This got to be a little annoying, from a photographer's perspective – at the end of a full day of shooting, 70% of my photos were of sunbeams, with the rest divided between 4 other species. (Eventually I learned a couple of tricks to increase my chances with the smaller species.)

And when two sunbeams compete for the same feeder or flower, watch out. They don't just try to bluff or intimidate, they actually make contact – chest bumping, hitting with their wings, and grabbing tail feathers in their claws. The sound of their wings as they collided was surprisingly loud, and made me wonder how often a bird is injured in these competitions.

Sometimes both birds would tumble toward the ground, recovering at the last second to fly in opposite directions, only to return for a rematch. It's a wonder any of them was able to feed, but somehow they managed.

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