Knot Spots: Update on Vigia Chico Road for Birders

Spotted: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Although it’s now 20 years old, Steve Howell’s Where to Watch Birds in Mexico is still the go-to guide for travelling birders in that country, but with the information that dated, readers need to take it with a grain of salt and a spirit of adventure.

Setting out to find the well-known Vigia Chico road that Howell profiles in his book, we consulted a more recent online source for updates and managed to find the location. The paved road goes a bit farther now, but it still turns into rutted hardpan/mud pretty quickly.

We didn’t see a lot of birds, but I put that down to arriving mid-morning.

However, two things birders should note about this famous spot:

1. The road is nearly impassable to regular cars with normal clearance. There are almost continuous deep gullies and holes with large rocks sticking up. We bottomed out over and over until we gave up at around km 4. So either bring a high-clearance vehicle or plan to walk.

2. I was standing at roadside, camera in hand, when a local came chugging up on a motorcycle. I called out Buenos dios as I do to everyone who passes, but instead of answering with a smile and going on, he stopped and approached us.

He let out a torrent of Spanish, from which I gathered he was saying photography on the road was prohibited. But somehow, if I paid a “fee” I could take my photos.

Knowing it is a public road, but not wanting to argue, I just said, Photographs are prohibited? Okay, no photographs. And I put my camera away. Of course, I got another flood of Spanish explaining about the fee, but I simply stuck to I understand, no photographs.

After seeing we were not going to pay, he climbed on his bike and roared away.

So I just wanted to warn other birders that this con artist has gotten wise to birders who want to use that road.

I’d also be very curious to know if anyone else has run into this?

Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 2

Ike took us on one more boat-birding expedition at sunset that first day before we headed for bed. Our hut had no solid window coverings, just flaps that you could prop up to let the breeze in, so it was essentially open to the bugs flying in and out at will. As to bugs on the floor, I think they kept it meticulously swept, but the safest plan was to simply not look. We slept on the floor with the equivalent of a yoga mat and a sheet and I spent the night imagining that armies of creep-crawlies were marching up my arms, around my neck, and straight for my face. Gah!

Sunrise the next morning was spectacular as we rose before dawn to be on the water at first light. As promised, Ike took us even further into the most remote areas of the park in hopes of seeing some of the rarer birds. Hornbills with improbable shapes soared over our heads, looking like pterodactyls.

A pair of broadbills—crimson red with bright blue beaks—lurked just out of clear camera range. A turquoise and orange kingfisher dove off an overhanging branch.We saw monkeys and macaques clambering in the trees, as well as a slow loris sitting very quietly, no doubt hoping we hadn’t seen it. A large monitor lizard swam lazily past our boat.

For our second night on the lake, we docked at a camp that made the previous night’s accommodations look like The Ritz. This was well beyond where the tourist day-trippers ventured and there were only a few other guests, fishermen, most likely.

Before turning in, I went to brush my teeth at the one and only sink in the one and only bathroom. There was no water flowing from the faucet, which didn’t bother me as I was using bottled water anyway. So I brushed and rinsed and spat—and felt water splashing against my feet. I peered under the sink and realized that there was no pipe connected, the water simply drained directly onto the floor. Such a no-fuss solution to the problem of plumbing.

WARNING: The following paragraphs contain graphic material that may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

So, sometime during the night, the one and only toilet in the one and only bathroom got plugged up. Which meant that morning found a gaggle of rather desperate guests wandering around in search of somewhere to conduct their morning ablutions. Being the sole woman in camp, I was probably more desperate than most.

Before continuing, I must harken back to an email exchange I had with Ike when organizing the tour.

Ike: Are you okay with a rustic camp?

Me: How rustic is rustic? I’m okay with anything except squat toilets.**

Ike: Ha, ha! No, I promise, absolutely no squat toilets.

Fast forward to the camp with the only flush toilet nonoperational. Someone kindly points me down the hill to a corrugated metal shack. I have a strong feeling that I know what I’ll find inside, and yes, indeed, there it is, the hole in the floor, and a big plastic cistern and scoop next to it (this is in lieu of toilet paper, of course).

We are all stronger (and more resourceful) than we know, and I’m happy to report that I did survive the ST challenge. Poor Ike was mortified when he realized what had happened and apologized profusely, but really, when you choose to go “into the wild,” you just have to accept that things might not go according to plan. Adaptability is all part of the adventure.

**Squat toilet: A hole in the floor over which one is expected to crouch while…well, you know. Not uncommon in parts of Asia.

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 1

Cheow Lan Lake, southern Thailand

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.

And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.

Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.

We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.

Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”

On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.

We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.

Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.

We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.

Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.

After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.

*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Gadgets: The Cotton Carrier

The Cotton Carrier camera harness for single camera. Photo from cottoncarrier.com.

The problem with photography as a hobby is that the more “into” it you get, the more and heavier the equipment you have to shlepp around. You may start with a modest little point-and-shoot weighing a few ounces, but before you know it, you’re staggering down the trail with multiple camera bodies dangling from your neck, extra lenses the size of oil drums stashed in your pockets, and a tripod crushing one shoulder. Of course, all that weight in the front is balanced out by your 50-lb photo backpack and you can use your monopod as a walking pole to keep you upright.

I am, therefore, always keen to check out gear that promises increased efficiency, accessibility, and/or ergonomics.

A couple of months ago, I began shopping for a camera harness, a rig that is designed to carry a camera (or cameras) close to your body with comfort and security. The idea is to take the weight off your neck and distribute it more evenly around your torso while ensuring that the camera does not swing around awkwardly, damaging you, it, or anything else. Knowing that during an upcoming trip I would be doing a lot of climbing in and out of small, tippy boats, as well as some challenging (by my standards) hiking, I thought the harness might be just the ticket.

After some research, I settled on the Cotton Carrier CCS G3. I was about to order it from a US online photo-specialty supplier, when I realized that the manufacturer is located in my own city. This meant I could avoid paying duty and the exchange rate while supporting a local business. Bonus!

On opening the box, first impressions were good. The materials are sturdy and of high quality. I had the straps fitted to my body in a few moments. Attaching the special mount (hub) to my lens mount took a bit of thought, but wasn’t difficult. As I used the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the screw, I wryly calculated how long it would take me to lose that vital tool.* Small objects tend to go missing easily in the flurry of highly-focused activity around a good bird sighting in the field.

I followed the diagram to slide in and lock the camera/lens in place, snapped on the safety tether (which is your final line of defense in case the camera somehow comes loose from the harness), and clipped the lens strap across my long, 300 mm lens so it wouldn’t jiggle from side to side, and voila, I was ready to hit the trail.

On that test hike, I found wearing the harness and camera took a bit of getting used to: I’m pretty soft and having the straps over my shoulders was tiring. The weight of the heavy lens right on my diaphragm made me uncomfortably conscious of my breathing. As it began to rain, I smugly pulled out the supplied rain cover, only to discover that it isn’t long enough for a camera + 300 mm lens. Gnashing of teeth. I wondered if I would actually use this gadget enough to make it worth the investment.

Happily, I had the opportunity to put the harness to a more definitive test on a month-long photo trip to Ecuador.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the harness. It was easy off and on with one snap buckle (although you do have to lift it over your head if you only release one buckle). I really liked the twist-and-lock attachment; secure even when I was clambering in those aforementioned small canoes, yet allowing quick access to my camera. I did carry a plastic bag in case of rain (and boy, did it rain!)

Using it when sight-seeing in the city felt a bit pretentious but there was no way anyone could snatch my camera when it was locked in place.

I worried about transferring the camera onto my monopod. You can do this without removing the Cotton Carrier “hub” but I wasn’t sure how secure it would be, as the screw that anchors the whole assembly is quite short. However, I didn’t have any problems with my 300 mm. A larger lens might be an issue.

During this trip, I used my heavy rig so much that I actually developed repetitive stress and numbness in my right thumb, so I was very glad to be able to relieve that strain by carrying the camera on the carrier rather than in my hand. That alone was worth the price.

The harness in use, showing the safety tether. Note how the camera hangs downward when locked into the harness, keeping it close to your body.

Most importantly, I had the gratifying experience of receiving assessing looks and some queries from other photogs at the birding lodges where we stayed. Considering that most of them nonchalantly toted lenses three times the size of mine (yes, size does matter), I desperately needed some edge in the cool gear department.

My single-camera harness retails on the Cotton website for $153 Cdn. For those who want to access a second camera or binoculars, Cotton carries a harness for you, too.

*As it turned out, about six weeks. However, it’s not hard to replace. Maybe carry a spare, just to be safe.

Got gadgets for photography or travel? Share your favourite in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com

Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery

One of the beauties at the Monteverde Hummingbird Gallery. Photo by Marian Buechert.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t enchanted by hummingbirds. With their tiny size, iridescent colours, and seemingly supersonic speed, they delight everyone from toddlers to hoary ancient birdwatchers.

Where I live, we get two—occasionally three—species. At the gallery and hummingbird garden located across from the entrance to the Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, visitors can indulge in a dozen species that regularly feed there.

This is a place to revel in the sheer quantity and easy accessibility of hummers on view. They zip by, flashing shining hues of green, gold, blue, bronze, red, purple, and turquoise, so intent on their meal that they pay little mind to the hulking humans gawking at them. If you stand in their usual flight path, they will impatiently whiz by within an inch of your ear. If you position yourself beside a feeder and hold your hands over the perches, the birds will land on your fingers and proceed with their meal.

Violet sabrewing. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The largest hummingbird in Costa Rica (and the largest found outside South America), the violet sabrewing, is a common sight. At 15 cm (5.9 in) long, it dwarfs many of the other species such as the coppery-headed emerald, which is a diminutive 7.6 cm (3 in) in size. Yet size is no indicator of temperament, and the sabrewing is less combative than some of its relatives. The mountain violetear (formerly called the green violet-ear), for example, aggressively warns off others by flaring its purple ear feathers, something impossible to see without a camera to capture the action.

Mountain violetear showing his fancy ear-muffs. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I’m a wimpy birder, and it doesn’t get much easier than this: sitting in the shade on a comfy bench surrounded by multiple feeders that attract scores of bright and active birds, with the bonus of a café steps away where you can buy a cold drink or ice cream whenever the sweat beads on your upper lip. Oh yeah, this is the life. Pura vida, indeed.

When we visited four years ago, the garden was free, with donations gratefully accepted and an unspoken obligation to buy something from the café or gift shop. After poking around on the Web a bit, I see that they seem to be charging $5 admission fee now. Regardless, it is worth the money. We spent several hours watching the various feeders and trying to count the number of species present. And taking photos, of course. Lots and lots of photos.

Are you a hummingbird lover? Let me know in a comment?

Male purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Female purple-throated mountain gem. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The hummers at Monteverde are acclimatized to the close presence of humans.

Female green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Mountain violetear. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Male green-crowned brilliant. Photo by Marian Buechert.

 

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)