Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Post #133 - Bay Area Bike Birding update and related thoughts on the '5-Mile Radius' project

First - Please check out the Ecuador piece that I wrote for the Nature Travel Network. It distills my 5 Ecuador posts down to a much quicker read! 

Since I spent a good chunk of this past Saturday successfully chasing a continuing Broad-billed Hummingbird in San Francisco (a county first), I figured it would be a good time for an update on my most recent Bay Area bike-birding exploits. After that I'd like to spend a bit of time discussing the recently-popularized 5-Mile Radius and how it could provide the perfect gateway into bike-birding. Here's a map of my route to the hummingbird. It was 22.6 miles each way plus ~5 miles around Golden Gate Park afterwards for ~50 miles total. I didn't bother with the camera since it adds much weight for what would have been crappy record shots anyway.

My one-way route to SF. I rode in it 1:31 (15 
MPH ave), much faster than the 2:10 Google 
suggests. Return trip 15 mins slower with traffic.

Broad-billed Hummingbird was species #236 that I've found from my bike since moving to the Bay Area last May. The vast majority of these have been observed in my home San Mateo County, but I've tacked on a few additional birds by venturing into neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties. The most notable species that I've added so far, beyond the hummer, are Red-footed Booby, Dusky Warbler, Tufted Duck, and LeConte's Sparrow, the last of those being a county first and technically rarer in my home San Mateo than any of those others with at least 2 county records each. It's also fun that I've found pelagics like Ancient Murrelet and Buller's Sheartwater alongside the more terrestrial likes of Burrowing Owl, Lewis's Woodpecker, Lucy's Warbler, and Red Crossbill. So yeah, bike-bring around here is really good. I'm really hoping to fluff up my list this spring or summer with ~10-day loop to the Sierras and back, and I'm hoping to get my total towards 300 by year's end. That will only take a couple thousand miles of cumulative riding, so stay tuned.

California state view

County view

I am also hoping to join Bay Area bike-birders Josiah Clark and Rob Furrow on their annual spring bike Big Day in late-April. A recently-materialized trip to Honduras in the middle of that month might make that impossible, but I am going to do everything that I can to make it happen!

OK, with all that as backdrop, I want to discuss the recently materialized 5-Mile Radius (5MR). The idea of the 5MR is to outline a circle with a radius of 5 miles from your place of residence (or other point of your choosing should you live in an awful area for birding) with the hope that a small, well-defined, and high-localized geography will motivate at least some birding within it. For example, this is what mine would look like. If I wanted, I could shift this circle several miles southwest so as to include less bay and more mountains while still keeping my residence within it, for example.

I know at least some of you are asking, "Why would I want to restrict my biding to such a small area?" Well, I see at least two very important reasons one might want to give 5MR birding a chance. The first of these is that carbon emissions will be reduced versus always driving to farther flung places. While birding emissions aren't likely to be significant in the face of ever-increasing world petroleum consumption, we birders should at least think about modifying our collective driving behavior to minimize our environmental impact. Second, data collected in the 5MR are particular valuable as they are highly localized and specific and as such will greatly aid in local conservation efforts. One of the problems with birding data is that a lot of them come from just a few areas, or 'Hot Spots'. If everyone spent at least some time each week in his/her 5MR, we'd get a more even distribution of data than if everyone races to the same places to chase the same reported birds. Who knows? Maybe you'll find the next great migrant trap right in your own 5MR!

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800

I know that the 5MR flies in the face of the driving and associated no-holds-barred listing that motivates much of our birding behavior, but I think it is a really interesting idea, particularly when cross-promoted with the various forms of green birding (walking, running, biking etc). As no point in the 5MR is more than 5 linear miles from home, it would be very easy to bird most or all of it by bike or foot. I personally have an ~25MR that I bird almost exclusively by bike (it runs from SF to Pigeon Point or so). What time I spend outside that radius is usually photography-motivated, but I sneak in a bit of petroleum-powered birding on those occasions. So, and as per usual, I'm not advocating that everyone immediately give up his or her car, but I do think the 5MR offers the perfect opportunity to reevaluate at least some percentage of our birding behaviors. I must admit that I fly to several international birding destinations each year, so what I save on the bike I probably more than give back on the plane. Such is the cost of being human. Just something for me and everyone else to think about in this installment. 

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Post #132 - Recent Bay Area shorebird photography - with tips!

Really quick - there is still space on the Colombia Photo-birding extravaganza that I am leading for Alvaro's Adventures Jun 22 - July 2 (full PDF itinerary linked just above my bio on that page). The general idea of this trip is to move slightly slower than on a normal birding trip so that we have time to collect shots in photographically productive areas - like around feeder arrays. We will not be sitting in a blind all day waiting for that one perfect shot, and we will cover plenty of habitats to run up your Colombian list! So, if you carry a camera while birding, I know you'll really enjoy this tour. We'll be visiting these exact spots (and many others!) where I collected these shots. 

***Click images for larger, sweeter views***

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager - Anisognathus somptuosus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Buffy Helmetcrest - Oxypogon stuebelii
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/800 at f/6.3, ISO 800

OK, on with the show! Since I've given you a lot to read in my recent Ecuador posts, I am just going to share a few recent photos and give you a few tips that might help you capture a few of your own.
***Again, click images for larger, sweeter views***

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Tip #1 - Get Low
This is the single most valuable tip that I can offer. Shooting down on shorebirds (from the standing position, for example) doesn't do much to imbue them with character. You really need to get down to their eye level to make them seem larger than life. That will also help with bokeh (blur) and subject isolation from both the foreground and background. Getting low will also allow much closer approach. Shorebirds are really trusting, provided that you're laying down on your stomach. I know many people can't easily get low or just don't want to lay in wet sand or mud, but that's what I had to do to collect most of the shots in this post.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 500

Tip #2 - Study tide tables
If you're going to be shooting somewhere tidal, it is imperative that you know what the tides are doing. For example, I never shoot SF Bay on low tide as the birds are too far out on the flats to make effective images. Likewise, the highest tide can be tough as the flats are completely inundated and the bird move elsewhere to roost. I generally look for mid-tides in the early morning or later afternoon so that I have decent light for the desired water level. It also helps to know what your subject eats so that you can find the tide when that food source is exposed. Rocky shorebirds, for example, might hide on high tide and then appear as the tide drops and exposes the rocks that they prefer. So, know your tides! It's easy to find them online.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/6.3, ISO 640

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Tip #3 - Use a very fast shutter for shorebird flight work
While shorebirds on the ground are relatively straightforward, shorebirds in-flight present a big challenge, particularly the little guys. Shorebirds fly really fast and most beat their wings very rapidly, so a fast shutter is going to be required to properly stop the action and get a sharp image. 1/2000 is the absolute slowest I'll go for shorebird flight work, but I generally prefer 1/2500 or 1/3200. In late afternoon sunlight, my starting settings are always 1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400. I'll bring the ISO up as the sun drops, and, if I stay towards sunset, start dropping the shutter speed at that point to get correct exposure. Some people get scared off by higher ISOs but remember, you can fix noise - but not blur - in post-production. I generally skip shooting on days with less that perfect sunlight, but that's a luxury of living in California!

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

OK, that's it for now. And don't forget about Colombia!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Post #131 - Amazonian Ecuador and the Napo Cultural Lodge

In my last four Ecuador posts, I focused on the highlands northwest of Quito. This time we are going to make a dramatic move to the east and the Amazonian lowlands. Just to get you oriented, here's another view of the topographic map that I showed in the first Ecuador post. I've also included a larger map that should help to put this into a larger, continental context. Ecuador's Amazon represents the extreme western edge of the Amazon basin and is just a tiny slice of the largest river system on the planet!

Andes are the brown/gray stripe
right down Ecuador's middle

When to visit
We visited in late-December and it was pretty ideal. It was close to 90F on the first of our five days, but rain in subsequent days cooled things down nicely. The dry season runs from November to April, so you're probably going to want to visit in that window. We had at least some rain each day, but only for more than 30 minutes on one occasion. Those interested in reptiles and amphibians might want to come when it is wetter. We didn't see a single snake in our five days which was a bit of a bummer (Sonia would disagree). There were mosquitos, but no more than anywhere else that I've been in the tropics. I really can't imagine there is a bad time to visit such an amazing place, but I could be wrong.

Getting there
As far as I know, there really isn't a good way to drive to Amazonian Ecuador; We flew 45 minutes from Quito over the eastern portion of the Andes to reach the Río Napo at Coca. From there it was into a large and very stable powered canoe for another 2-2.5 hours to reach another 50mi/80km downriver (east). That ride is absolutely fantastic and wonderfully relaxing. It's really cool since the river channel shifts everyday depending how much water is flowing, so navigating everything is a real art! Everything, flight included, was booked and organized by our lodge, the Napo Cultural Center, as part of our package. So far as I could surmise, that's the way all the other lodges (Napo Wildlife, Sacha, Sani, La Selva, etc) do it as well. There aren't casual accommodations (i.e guest houses, local motels, Airbnbs) that far downriver, so your really need to go through a lodge. It is not cheap, but the experience it well worth it.

Speeding down the Napo

View from the speeding boat
I selected this lodge for three reasons. The first was price. Napo Cultural cost significantly less (like $1000-$1500 less for 5 days and 4 nights) than any of the other Amazon lodges, the closely related and most expensive Napo Wildlife Center included. The second reason was cultural. Napo Cultural is run completely by native Kichwa people, and all of the money the lodge generates goes directly into the community (rather than lining the pockets of foreign investors as it does as some lodges - do your research!). The third reason was that Napo Cultural has fantastic canopy access. That access was great for both birds and jungle vistas but does require you to climb over 200+ steps to reach either of two observation platforms. It was a workout with my scope and camera!

Climbing 1 of the 2 Napo canopy towers

The view from the top

What is the difference between Napo Wildlife and Napo Cultural?
In the most general terms, Napo Wildlife is more about luxury accommodations and Napo Cultural is more about immersion with native peoples - at least to my eye. From my perspective, Napo Culural was plenty luxurious, and I'm not exactly sure what beyond our already very comfortable experience Napo Wildlife (or any of the other competing lodges) provides for effectively double the price. 

Plenty nice for me.
We had one of those fancy rain showers too!

It's also worth nothing that Napo Cultural is set right on the Río Napo. That makes it very easy to move up and down the river and access different regions of the adjacent and incredible Yasuni National Park. Napo Wildlife is located an additional 1.5 hours - by hand-paddled canoe - up a small creek and into the forest, far from that main river artery. So, for those that want maximum chance to explore the area, Cultural might be better. For those more into staying close to the lodge, Wildlife might be better. As far was I know, there's nothing you can do at Wildlife that you can't do at Cultural (and vice versa), but the river access of Cultural really tips the balance for me. For example, the various parrot licks are 1.5 hours from Wildlife versus 10 mins from Cultural.

***as always, click photos for larger, better views***

Mealy Parrots and Blue-Headed Parrots on 
a clay lick. Minerals in the clay neutralize
toxins in the foods that they eat.

A Mealy Parrot surrounded
by Dusky-Headed Parakeets

Scarlet Macaws - Ara Macao
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Scarlet Macaw - Ara macao
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/200 at f/4 ISO 1600

Whoa! These White-lipped Peccaries came storming
in while I was photographing the macaws. I had my rig 
on a tripod so I just hit record to get this!

As for the cultural component at Napo Cultural, it is really cool. Upon arriving, we were assigned a pair of local guides that who took us through the various activities - canoeing, kayaking, hiking, observation towers, etc - during our 5D/4N stay. They were both very knowledgable and friendly, and beyond them we met all sort of other local folks, almost all of whom have ties to the lodge in some capacity (guides, cooks, staff etc). We sampled native food (though most was fairly Americanized), explored local customs and art, and even participated in some traditional Kichwa dances. I really felt as though our stay contributed to the economic well-being of the community. 

Local food

How are the days structured at Napo Cultural?
Napo Cultural (and I assume Napo Wildlife and all the other lodges) are different from the places we stayed in the highlands in that you can't just wander off the property and explore things on your own. Everything is coordinated around shuttling people up and down the river in the canoes. When you arrive, you are randomly assigned to a group for the days of your stay, and you do a bunch of pre-fabricated and awesome activities with that same group. What that means is that much of your experience will depend on how adventurous your group is. Our group was made up of two wonderful natives guides, Venancio and Silvia, and only one other person, a very friendly and adventurous guy (Coleman), also from the Bay Area. Since we were all up for anything, we were able to do and see more than larger groups where some people had less energy or lower tolerances for rain showers, for example. We also saw a ton of animals since we didn't have any loud people or children with us, and I suspect that our experience would have been very different had we been lumped in with the family of 9 and their many kids that arrived at the same time we did. So, if you're coming to bird, be clear that you want to be grouped with other birders rather than general family vacationers. Our guides actually bent over backwards to do a whole bunch of extra stuff with us since we were so enthusiastic!

Canoeing Blackwater Creek - 
this is actually the creek that connects 
Napo Wildlife to the Río Napo.

Sonia (wife), Silvia (guide), Venancio (guide), Coleman, Big Ugly

How is the birding at Napo Cultural?
Very good - with a few caveats. As I had never been to the Amazon Basin before this trip, virtually every bird I saw was a lifer. I wasn't so much into finding every elusive antbird as I was just enjoying the Amazon. We saw lots of birds, but I didn't bird or photograph with nearly the same intensity as I did in the highlands. If you've never been to the Amazon before, you're going to have a blast and see all sorts of cool stuff no matter what you do. With the structured activities, Napo Cultural is also a great destination for families. If, however, you've been to the Amazon before and/or are coming mainly to list specific and/or elusive species, you might get a bit frustrated by the structure of everything. One option is to hire your own guide from outside Napo Cultural and bring him/her with you. That way you can do your own thing with someone who knows his/her way around the area. It also worth noting that there isn't any real photography infrastructure (i.e set-ups, blinds) at Napo (I don't know about the other lodges though), so all my my shots were from the field. My eBird checklists from at Napo Cultural:

Hoatzin - Ophisthocomus hoazin
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Southern Lapwing - Vanellus chilensis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1250 at f/4, ISO 800
**fastest shutter in my 2 weeks in Ecuador**

Many-banded Aracari - Pteroglossus pluricinctus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/125 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Wow, that's a lot more than I thought I'd write. Hopefully I've left enough up to the imagination that you still want to visit. I think I've included everything that I wanted to cover, but if I forgot something please feel free to ask a question in the comments section.

That's it for Ecuador! I'm headed back to Colombia in late-June to lead a birding tour with a photography slant for Alvaro's Adventures. There still space if you're interested, and I'd love to have some blog readers along to enjoy the trip with me!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Post #130 - Mindo, Ecuador!

OK, let's pick up the great Ecuador adventure in Mindo, a small town/city of about 3000 people located about 2 hours west of Quito. Mindo is known - beyond birding - as an outdoor-adventure destination, and with zip-lining, river tubing, hiking, and other activities there is no lack of things to do. Town is very lively, and we found a nice assortment of local food right along the main street.

While interesting birding can be found anywhere, Mindo isn't so much a specific birding destination as it is a great base of operations to access a variety of nearby birding and photography locations. We spent three days in Mindo, and I am going to use this post to highlight some of the day trips that we took from that base. What I present is hardly an exhaustive list, so please know that there is a ton to do beyond what's here. Really, though, all you need to do is pull over on any back road and you're going to find great birding.

Locations that I visited and that I'll cover

Refugio Paz de los Aves
Rio Silanche
The Birder's House

Getting there
The easiest way to get to Mindo - from the airport is - to drive north and west through Quito to join Highway 28, the main (paved) artery west. The turnoff to Mindo is well signed, and from there one follows another well paved road down the hill several miles to reach town.

Highway 28 route

Alternatively, the more adventurous can follow the unpaved Nono-Mindo Road from Nono through Tandayapa and farther west to reach Mindo. As I described in previous posts, there is fantastic birding all along that road, particularly in the cloud forest that surrounds the Bellavista Lodge between Tandayapa and Mindo. The Nono-Mindo Road is probably passable in a two-wheel vehicle, but we had a high-clearance SUV-type that made the ride significantly smoother than it would have otherwise been.

Nono-Mindo route

Places to stay
There are all sorts of places to stay in and around Mindo, from lodges to cheap hotels to Airbnbs. As we did lodges in Tandayapa, my wife wanted to do Airbnbs in Mindo to mix it up. It's also worth noting that Airbnbs are much cheaper than lodges and are a great option for the budget-minded traveler. We did stopped into Septimo Paraiso to check it out and found it really nice. It's very well located and would make an ideal base of operations. They feed hummingbirds, so there's that going on right on the property. But really, everything is so close together that it doesn't really matter where you stay.

Airbnb tree house in Mindo

Excursions from Mindo

Refugio Paz de Los Aves
This place is world famous and is right off of Highway 28 between Nanegalito and Mindo. It is a private reserve run by Angel Paz and his son Vinicio and is a must-do for anyone in Mindo. I suggest the 4-hour, early morning tour (6-10am) that includes antpittas, lekking Andean Cock-of-the-rock, some general birding, and a full breakfast. Be warned that the tour rarely ends at 10; Ours ran until almost noon! So, two important points. First, eat something substantial before you go since you won't get fed until much later than advertised. Second, don't make any other plans between 10am and noon as your tour will likely run into that time. Also be aware that Giant Antpitta has become significantly more difficult to locate in recent years. It is not like with the original "Maria" individual that appeared on the same log at the same time every morning. At present, it is estimated that only 1 in 4 tours scores the Giant, and much work is now required to find it in-habitat. We missed Giant and Yellow-bellied Antpittas but observed the widespread Chestnut-crowned, the rare Moustached, and the tiny Ochre-breasted (only 4 inches long!). We had great views of cock-of-the-rock, albeit too early and too misty for decent photographs. Beyond the advertised species, we saw Powerful Woodpecker, Golden-headed Quetzal, Scaled Fruiteater, and a host of other birds. https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S41306149)

***click bird images for larger, high-resolution views***

Ochre-breasted Antpitta - Grallaricula flavirostris
Refugio Paz de Las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/100 at f/4, ISO 2000

Rio Silanche
Administered by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, Rio Silanche is located about 50km/30mi west of Mindo on Highway 28. The turnoff to Silanche is at km 127. Ad additional 7km on a dirt reqoad is required after that. At just 1000 feet of elevation, Silanche is several thousand feet lower than Mindo and as such the birdlife is completely different. There's no faster way to fluff up your trip list than to spend a day birding at Silanche. We spent a rainy morning at Silanche and found a wide array of birds including Hook-billed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Blue-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Pacific Antwren, Bronze-winged Parrot, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-faced Dacnis, and Green Honeycreeper. Silanche is MUCH better for birding than it is for photography. So, I would leave the big lens back at your place of lodging and just roll with a 100-400 for documentation purposes. Also, there's not much civilization near the reserve, so be sure to bring plenty of food and water if you're going to spend the entire day.  Again, the eBird checklist represents only the things we could identify visually as we didn't know any of the calls!

This place is probably 1.25 hours northwest from Mindo (via Pacto) and is a must for birders and photographers. It is a small, family run operation with very nice grounds and awesome feeder set-ups (directions here). In particular, Mashpi-Amagusa is an incredible spot for Chocó endemics such as Indigo Flowerpiercer, Moss-Backed Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, and Black-chinned Mountain Tanager. Many of these birds come right to the feeders for close views. Hummingbirds are also very-well represented and present very nice photo opportunities. One thing to note: Mashpi-Amagusa is often very foggy, and that fog can make shooting very challenging if not completely pointless. Such was the case on my visit (see example below). I could shoot through about 5 feet of it, but anything more and the fog took over the shot. Regardless, Masphi-Amagusa is worth a visit just for the birding. https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S41213161

Fog ruined most of my Amagusa shoot - bit's that's life.
This Flame-faced Tanager woulda been sweet w/o fog.

Juvenile Empress Brilliant that really
wanted to be identified. He also spent 
a fair amount of time sitting on my head.

Close-up of juvenile Empress Brilliant - Heliodoxa imperatrix
Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Velvet-purple Coronet - Boissonneaua jardini
Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/160 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

All that being said, I need to make a VERY IMPORTANT clarification. There are two places that people refer to as 'Mashpi'. The first is the Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve, the birding spot that I have discussed above. There is also the Mashpi Lodge, an obnoxious and elitist accommodation right next to Mashpi-Amagusa. All local birders hate the Mashpi Lodge as the building was build against their explicitly solicited advise. The building is large, all glass, and functions as the perfect bird killer right in the middle of the jungle. Locals who toured the place while it was being built noted dozens of dead birds around it. Worse, they builders/owners somehow managed to get the place endorsed by the National Geographic Society (with what I can only assume was a direct cash payment to NGS). So, I strongly urge everyone to visit the Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve and to avoid the Mashpi Lodge. With rates of $700/night and up, I imagine that won't be a problem for most people. Ecolodge my ass. No real birder would ever be caught dead there. Here's a photo of it. I'm not even going to link to the website.

The bird killer

The Birder's House
This place is a diamond in the rough. We had never heard of it before saw a sign for it as we drove the Nono-Mindo Road from Tandayapa/Bellavista to Mindo. We decided to stick our heads in, and were we ever impressed. This property is the SINGLE BEST PHOTOGRAPHY SPOT that I visited in the highlands. It was so good that we scrapped our plans for the following morning so that I could have an additional session on the property. The guy who runs the place, Vinicio Perez, is very friendly and speaks English quite well. He is a photographer and has set the place up perfectly. He has an extensive hummingbird array that is covered my a high, plastic canopy. He also has 2 two permanent blinds that attract a wide very array of birds. Importantly, he has set the blinds up with plenty of space between the subjects and the backgrounds so that you can get smooth, uncluttered backgrounds for your shots. I literally could have spent 3 full days shooting at his place. He has several small cabanas and serves hot meals, and had I known that we could have stayed on site we certainly would have done so. Really though, the results speak for themselves!

Inside on of Vinicio's blinds - it's pretty sweet!

Blue-capped Tanager - Thraupis cyanocephala
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Buff-tailed Coronet - Boissonneaua flavescens
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Dusky Chlorospingus - Chlorospingus semifuscus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on Canon 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/4 ISO 2000

Violet-tailed Sylph - Aglaiocercus coelestis
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Like I said, there is way more to do in Mindo than these 4 places, but those should give you at least some ideas as to what sorts of things are available. That's where I will leave things for the moment. Next time we'll pick up much farther east, in the Ecuadorian Amazonian Basin. That will be the fifth and final post in this Ecuador collection.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Post #129 - Ecuador's Tandayapa Valley

OK, last time we left off at 11,500 feet of elevation, high above Quito at Reserva Yanacocha. In this post, we are going to move north and west, dropping elevation until we reach the birding hotspot that is Ecuador's Tandayapa Valley. What makes the valley cool is that the birdlife changes as one drops elevation from its higher, southern end towards its lower, northern end. Even better, there are nice lodges at the top, middle, and bottom of the valley, so it is possible to bounce around within the valley and stay at a couple of different elevations. So, with that, let's get going.

Getting there
There are basically two ways to reach the Tandayapa Valley. The first is the faster, more straightforward, and shown below. This route utilizes the paved but twisty Highway 28 to get you to the valley. Once you turn off of that road you'll be at the north end of well-maintained dirt road that runs the south length of the valley and connects to the Nono-Mindo Road at its southern end.

Route 1: Paved Highway 28

The second way is the route that I outlined in the last post, the one that ultilizes the unpaved Nono-Mindo Road to reach Tandayapa. That route connects well with a visit to Yanacocha as described in that last post. This is the same map I showed in that post.

Route 2: Unpaved Nono-Mindo Road

A Closer look at the Tandayapa Valley
Now that we've reached the Tandayapa Valley, let's talk a closer look at it. The valley rises from 5,000' at its northern end at Reserva Alambi to 7,350' at Bellavista Lodge at its higher, southern end. Tandayapa Bird Lodge sits midway between those two endpoints, at rough 5,900'. Tandayapa Bird Lodge sits right above the town of Tandayapa, right where the Nono-Mindo Road intersects the road that runs up the valley and connects the various lodges. The town of Tandayapa is so small that you shouldn't expect anything from it. If you want a restaurant, proper store, or cell service you should head to Nanegalito, ~5 miles beyond Alambi on Highway 28.

Reserva Alambi - Alambi is AWESOME, as much because of the wonderful family that owns the place as the birding on and around the property. Alambi is less a lodge and more a guesthouse, the sort that you might find on Airbnb; It only holds 6 guests at a time, and hosts Jairo, Favian, and Maria come and go over the course of the day, completing vacating the premises at night. Sonia and I had the place to ourselves the 2 nights that we were there, so it was a really intimate and personal experience. Since it is so small, Alambi is NOT suited for big tour groups; It is much better for a couple or small group of friends. Breakfast and lunch are served on the back porch so the birding never stops! Dinner is indoors. It is also the easiest lodge to reach from Highway 28, being just 100 yards down the dirt from that paved main thoroughfare.

Alambi backyard feeder array

Lunch with a view

Alambi dinner area and attached kitchen

Hummingbirds starred at Alambi. All of the action was on the back porch where a dozen hummingbird feeders were hung. In the course of our 2 days and nights, I think we had 15-16 hummer species right from the porch. It was constant action, and the birds were so stunning that it makes Alambi the perfect place to stay with a casually-birding spouse. The hummers allowed very close approach for photography. My only critique is that the feeders are hung so close to the backing foliage that it is very tough to get shots will clean, smooth backgrounds. I took the time to set up some of my own perches and wait for birds to land on them. That's how I got the first two shots below. Headshots were easy as I could usually find a smooth background patch against which to shoot such a small area of the bird.

***Click images for larger, sharper views***

Andean Emerald - Amazilia franciae
Reserva Alambi
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS IIon EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/6.3, ISO 1600

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird - Amazilia tzacatl
Reserva Alambi
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/125 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Crowned Woodnymph - Thalurania colombica
Reserva Alambi
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

The grounds beyond that feeding area were also very birdy, and we took several walks up the main dirt road in front of the place to find additional species. It is also possible to visit Alambi as a guest, and many tour groups do just that. If you come on your own, please do leave $5-10 per person as a tip to help defray the cost of sugar water and the incredible amount of labor that such a wonderful hummingbird array requires. There is a tip jar at the far end of the porch. Bottom line is that Alambi and those who run it are wonderful. You simply cannot go wrong! Jairo really knows his birds and is available for private guiding upon arrangement.

Beyond all the hummers, bird highlights included Barred Hawk, Red-faced and Slaty Spinetails, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Black-winged Saltator, Tricolored Brushfinch, White-winged Tanager, and Golden Grosbeak.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge
With a central location in the valley, Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL) is a popular choice, particularly for larger tour groups as the lodge can accommodate 20-30 people at a time. Like at Alambi, we spent 2 nights at TBL. Access to TBL is admittedly a bit tricky as your vehicle must climb an unbelievably steep and rocky driveway to reach the lodge. I would not want to try it in a sedan though it can apparently be done. Built right into the steep valley hillside, TBL feels very secluded and private. That feeling is made greater by the fact that the forest runs right up to edge of the lodge. The hummingbird feeders are very well-positioned on the porch, and it is really easy to get clean shots of birds as they come and go from the staging perches.

Dining/Communal area at Tandayapa Bird Lodge

Porch at Tandayapa Bird Lodge

Fawn-Breasted Briliant - Heliodoxa rubinoides
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Green-crowned Briliant - Heliodoxa jacula
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Very interesting was the illuminated insect sheet that attracted moths of every size, shape, and description, particularly at night. It was to this sheet that many species of birds, most notably several Toucan Barbets, would come each morning to feed. Photographing around that insect sheet was very challenging as there was very little light and the backgrounds were perpetually cluttered without a decent distance between the sheet, the nearby perches, and the surrounding forest. But is was really cool to see the birds (and the moths!) so close.

There is a nice trail that runs around the property, but do beware as it is quite steep and rocky. It's more suitable for adventurous individuals or couples than it is tour groups. Also very cool was the antpitta blind where we had very nice views of Scaled Antpitta, albeit basically in the dark as they put the worms out super early. We also had fantastic views of Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Rufous Motmot when they came into the feeders. This toucanet was perched on a hummingbird feeder and was using his huge beak to snap at hummingbirds if they approached too closely!

Crimson-rumped Toucanet - Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Tandayapa is a really nice place, but unlike Alambi, isn't the intimate sort where you can just sit around on the property all day and feel like you own the place. Tandayapa is a lodge, Alambi is a house. What makes Tandayapa great is its location and size, two things that are really, really good for tours. Alambi possessed a warmth that Tandayapa did not, and Tandayapa possessed a big group functionality that Alambi lacked. So, both places are great, but for different things. With respect to bird diversity, I found Tandayapa to be the lowest of the three lodges I discuss in this post. Much of that is due to the fact there isn't much open, birding space around the lodge. Walking down the rocky driveway to reach the road will also be difficult for some folks. As such, it's tough to just walk out to the main road as you can at Alambi and Bellavista. Tandayapa is a very fine place to stay and sleep, but you're going to have to get off the property (i.e drive somewhere else) to bird.



At the top of the Tandayapa Valley, in proper cloud forest, is Bellavista. We did not stay at Bellavista but used one of our mornings at Tandayapa to drive up there to visit the lodge and bird the area. That was one of the best decisions we made as we saw all sorts of amazing birds up there including Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Pearled Treerunner, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Scaled Fruiteater, Turquoise Jay, Grass-green Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, and the highly prized and absolutely stunning Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, bar far the coolest bird we saw anywhere in the valley. Again, we heard a ton of other stuff but didn't know what any of it was!

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (Record shot only)


Bellavista shares some attributes of Alambi and TBL. As it is a series of cottages (unlike one big building like at TBL), Bellavista has a charm reminiscent of Alambi, albeit on a scale large enough to accommodate tour groups. They have some feeders on the property, but the best birding is out on the Nono-Mindo Road road as it runs a bit father up the hill. It is very easy to walk out the front gate and start birding. Anyone can handle it.

Location-wise Bellavista has pluses and minuses. It's at the top of the valley and so the cloud forest and associated exiting birding are juts out the front door. But it's also the farthest lodge from any paved road by at least 20 mins. On the other hand, Bellavista is farther along the Nono-Mindo Road, so it's much easier to get to Mindo than from say Tandayapa. From Alambi you'd get right onto Highway 28 and take that paved road around to Mindo instead. I also saw zero photographic set-ups at Bellavista, and I strongly suspect it ranks at the bottom of the three lodges for shooting. I also suspect it is the best birding of the three lodges so what you think of it will depend on your interest. Bellavista is a great place to see the recently described olingito (a cute, furry mammal). They put food out for them each night.

So that should get you started. There is another Lodge, San Jorge Tandayapa, but we neither stayed or birded there. I have generally heard good things about it, but my emails, however, went completely ignored. 

OK, that should get you started. The Tandayapa Valley is a short drive from Mindo, and it is towards that birding destination that well will head in the next installment.