Odd Birds

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Mindo is another completely different experience and an entirely different ecosystem. A rather ramshackle town, though in a charming way, it is set at about 3500 feet above sea level in what is termed the Cloud Forest. The forest is beautiful as the thick canopy of growth marches over the hills, with at certain times of the day, wisps of cloud clinging to the tree tops. The climate is lovely, warm and sunny in the day time, clouding in by afternoon but not cold and damp as one would expect. Of course this is not very high, less that half the height of Quito so the nights are much warmer.

The Cloud Forest is a bird watcher’s paradise, but for interested but incompetent amateurs like ourselves, the birds are hard to spot. This is not like Sri Lanka where, armed with a decent bird book, we could identify birds every day as they sat on wires and warbled in trees with moderate vegetation or pranced on our lawn or at the water’s edge. Here we are surrounded by bird song from morning til night but the vegetation is so thick that we have trouble spotting them among the leaves. Therefore it is important to hire a bird guide.

The Dragonfly Inn where we are staying helped us contact Marcelo, one of the most established bird guides here. He came over to talk to us, and explained that if we wanted to see the cocks-of-the-rock do their famous mating dance we would have to set off at 5 a.m. the next morning. Knowing that Cheryl and Scott had tried and failed to see these birds, I expressed some reservation about the 5 a.m. start, but the regular bird walk starts at 6 a.m. so it seemed worthwhile to take a chance on seeing the cock-of-the-rock.

These oddly shaped bright red male birds perform a sort of mating dance each morning from just before dawn until the light is starting to brighten – ie from 5:45 to 6:45 each day. They only do it in certain spots called leks, and there are 3 leks around Mindo, each on private land so a special fee is levied for admission. The crazy thing is that these nutty birds perform this dance every single day, but the females only attend to choose a mate from June to August. The rest of the year is just posturing and practising.

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We crept out of the hotel at 5 and set off with Marcelo in his beat up truck to a spot 15 minutes away from which we walked in the darkness up a steep jungle path to a spot overlooking the lek, Marcelo lugging a large spotting telescope on a tripod. I expected that the birds would at least perform this dance out in the open to please the tourists, but no, they perch on branches in thick trees, and just when you have one in your sights, they move! Marcelo seemed to spot birds mainly by following the sound, and he told us he could hear 5 cocks there, we were lucky to get a fairly good view of 3 of them. They are a puffy bird, with a kind of pouf of feathers on their heads, and their eyes are extremely low set so at first it is hard to figure out their facial configuration. The dance consists of bobbing up and down and jerking their black tails around as far as we could see, though Marcelo said that when hens were actually present they get much wilder and jump in the air to attract attention. At that time there could be 10 or 12 males together but only 3 or so females as males outnumber females by a large margin. The hens build the nests and care for the young, and do all the work, and the cocks spend their lives perfecting their dance for their one chance of the year. Nothing like the sea birds with their cooperative rearing of the young.

After our success there, we went back down the trail and continued in another area for the general bird watching. Marcelo called the birds and had an amazing ability to spot the bird, plant the tripod, get it focussed and call us over to look. Our binoculars were not nearly so effective, without the scope we would not have seen much at all. It was really hard to distinguish who was tweeting, Marcelo or the bird as they would call and answer each other. He attracted 4 or 5 varieties of toucans that way, they are rather different from the Asian ones.

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At one point he spotted a tiny tanager in a tree, very bright blue, and began to make his bird calls. Gradually more and more varieties of tanagers showed up, all different colours, which he named with great precision. I thought he was making the tanagers’ call but actually he was making the sound of the Cloud Forest Pygmy Owl which is their predator. Since they thought one was near, they banded together in the tree to try to fight it off! Marcelo was quite proud of this trick as he assured us that the other guides didn’t know how to do it. We saw lots of different species of birds but they were very frustrating for Doug to photograph as they all perch in these very thickly leaved trees. Altogether a fun morning. By noon we had been birding for 7 hours and that was plenty for us!

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The next day we impersonated the birds by trying zip lining for the first time. Lots of fun and very well done with all the safety features. We did 10 lines of various speeds and the 2 young guides took very good care of us. We both tried the “Superman/woman” pose, and sadly since Doug cannot arch his back or neck he looked a bit like a corpse being brought in, my pictures were marred by the fact that I kept tipping over with my arms out and would clutch the legs of the guide who went tandem with us for this pose, thus spoiling the shot. We declined the Mariposa (butterfly) pose which involves hanging upside down.

On the way back we went to a mariposa breeding and educational centre. The most gorgeous butterflies flew in clouds around us, including the incredibly brilliant Blue Morpheus, but they flit so quickly and shut their wings when they alight, that again the photographer was stymied. It was quite magical to sit among them as they flitted from flower to flower, alighting on those whose colour blended with theirs. They showed us how they collect the eggs and grow the larvae and the pupae until they hatch. They release most of them and keep a selection for display in their garden.

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Our room has a small balcony opening beside a tree hung with a couple of hummingbird feeders and the most amazing variety of hummers appear and quickly alight, then flit off, taking violent exception to others who try to horn in on the feeder — it seems that they are very feisty. They range from tiny, tiny, to surprisingly large, perhaps the size of a slim chickadee. I am going to study ours at home with more interest next summer. The cutest thing was the first afternoon when it poured torrentially, and as we watched from our balcony they took turns perching on a branch, spreading their wings, and having a bird shower! Only one did it at a time, no showering together apparently, but that was clearly what they were up to. They abound here, as do the flowering plants and vines that they sip nectar from. The plants here could take up a whole other blog, so varied and colourful.

Tomorrow we are back to Quito for one night and to leave our luggage, then off to the Amazon by plane to Rio Lagria, then by canoe to the jungle lodge where we will spend 4 nights. Last big adventure before we return to Quito to await our flight home. Time certainly flies!

 

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