Sunday, October 19, 2014

The tailless tanager

In Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador, in 2013 we saw a lemon-rumped tanager that was missing all of its tail feathers. We wondered how a bird could survive with no tail - could it really fly well enough to escape predators?

Last month I was back in Tandayapa and the tailless tanager was still there, apparently doing just fine.

Will the tailless tanager still be there in 2015? Join me in Ecuador and find out for yourself!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Splish, splash ...

Glossy flowerpiercer

Beside a trail at Yanacocha Reserve, on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano northwest of Quito, was a little pool of water, no more than a foot wide and a couple inches deep. It didn't look like much, but it was pretty popular with the local birds. I sat for a while, and within a few minutes a glossy flowerpiercer approached the pool, waded in, and had a bath.

Half an hour later, a masked flowerpiercer did the same.

Masked flowerpiercer

Over the next hour or so, two species of hummingbirds and an antpitta dropped by as well. The hummingbirds jumped right in, but the antpitta was apparently a little more shy about bathing in public.

Rainbow-bearded thornbill

Tyrian metal-tail

Rufous antpitta

Monday, May 26, 2014

A brand-new species, sort of ...

When you hear about a newly-discovered animal species, it might conjure up images of an intrepid 19th-century British explorer, dressed in a tweed suit and a pith helmet, hacking through the jungle with a small team of porters, going for weeks or months without contact with "civilization."

But these days, new species are more likely to be discovered in a DNA lab than an uncharted wilderness. That was the case in August 2013, when zoologists announced the discovery of the olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina, a solitary, nocturnal member of the raccoon family that lives in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia. Olinguitos are not really new, of course – and in fact they have been observed, captured, and even exhibited in zoos. But they were always thought to be olingos, a slightly larger and lighter-colored animal that lives in similar, although lower-elevation, habitats.

In one notable case, an adult female named Ringerl was transferred to zoos in at least five U.S. cities in repeated attempts to get her to breed with a male olingo. She wasn't just waiting for Mr. Right – she was waiting for the right species.

Then one day Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was looking at some olingo skins and skulls at the Field Museum in Chicago, and found a few that just didn't seem to match the others. A thorough DNA analysis confirmed that he had, in fact, found a new species.

The olinguito's announcement came as I was preparing for a trip to the cloud forest myself, so naturally I hoped for the chance to photograph one – and in fact I did get that chance, one night in Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador.

Join me in Ecuador for a chance to see an olinguito yourself!

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

El condor pasa

Carunculated caracara

Four photographers are aiming our long lenses at a carunculated caracara, one of the signature birds of the treeless Andean paramo. It's a big raptor, about the size of the red-tailed hawks that we know from California. As we approach, we're surprised to learn that, rather than hunting from the air, it spends much of its time scratching in the dirt like a chicken, looking for worms, insects, lizards, and other small prey.

Suddenly we hear Jorge Cruz, our host and guide, shouting, "Condor! Condor! Condor!"

Andean condor

Four lenses swing around in unison. Shutters click furiously as the world's largest flying bird approaches, apparently curious about the latest visitors to its territory. The giant vulture soars over our heads, turns, and in less than a minute disappears over the horizon. I guess we weren't as interesting to the bird as it was to us.

Condors are vultures, and we've all seen plenty of vultures of various species. So you might think that seeing a condor would be much like seeing any other vulture. You might think that, but only until you actually see one. However you think about them – biologically, culturally, spiritually – condors are different.

The condor has been a part of indigenous Andean art and mythology for thousands of years, and is considered to be the ruler of the physical world. (The word condor is derived from the Quechua kuntur.) In modern times, every country the condor inhabits has adopted it as a national symbol, representing strength and power.

Andean condor

Physically, condors have an ancient, dinosaur-like appearance, which is only exaggerated by their huge size and the vastness of their mountain habitat. Watching a condor, it's easy to step back in time and imagine it competing with saber-toothed cats for the remains of a giant sloth. Condors soar with no apparent effort, their ten-foot wingspan carrying them up to 120 miles in a day as they search for food.

After our spiritual experience, we complain about the flat light, the featureless gray sky, and the difficulty of finding the proper exposure for the underside of a black bird. We're photographers, after all. But later, over a dinner of fresh trout, local potatoes, and beans that were picked that morning on the slopes of Mount Antisana, we all agree that photographing an Andean condor was one of the highlights of our time in Ecuador.

Join me in Ecuador for a chance to photograph a condor yourself!

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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

Would you like to photograph birds with Angel Paz? Join me in Ecuador!

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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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