Home, For A While

It can be exhausting to travel. After 35 straight days in South America and two weeks in Costa Rica just prior to that, I was unabashedly glad to come home at the end of last week. And although my return coincided with the first warm day in weeks in Maryland, and so the snow that had blanketed the region was melting in great rivers, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been frigid. Or icy. I missed my cats, I missed my friends and family, and I longed to sleep in my own bed, in my own house, without anyone to face or chat up at breakfast the next morning. Perhaps most of all, my senses were saturated, just like my clothes, which were distressingly suffused with the smell of Amazonian rivers.

I saw over 850 species of birds, including many that would have been life listed, if only I kept such a list.

Eight species of toucans.

A black-billed mountain toucan

A white throated toucan robbing a cacique’s nest of its eggs in the Amazon

A black-billed mountain toucan high in the Andes in Ecuador

A black-billed mountain toucan high in the Andes in Ecuador

 

Fifty one species of hummingbirds.

A chestnut-breasted coronet, hanging out at Guango Lodge, in Ecuador

A chestnut-breasted coronet, hanging out at Guango Lodge, in Ecuador

 

The irresistible wire-crested thorntail hummingbird

The irresistible wire-crested thorntail hummingbird

 

Forty seven species of tanagers.

The aptly named Paradise Tanger

The aptly named Paradise tanager

 

A golden-eared tanager

A golden-eared tanager

And one totally adorable penguin species in the Ballesta Islands: the Humboldt. It took everything I had not to jump out of the boat that day.

A Humboldt penguin

A Humboldt penguin on the Ballesta Islands, a giant marine reserve off the southern coast of Peru

 

I practically rubbed noses with giant river otters, anacondas, boas, monkeys, peccaries and, of course, the giant anteater that I had my heart set on seeing in Guyana and did. Oh, and so many caimans and sea lions that it got boring.

A caiman

A caiman

An anaconda, napping outside my cabin at Napo Wildlife Center

An anaconda, napping outside my cabin at Napo Wildlife Center

Sea lions on the rocks in the Ballesta Islands of Peru

Sea lions on the rocks in the Ballesta Islands of Peru

 

I lost count of the many plants that I’d never seen before and couldn’t identify but loved, and I coveted every single fuchsia that bloomed, whether at sea level in Lima or at 15,000 feet outside of Quito.

A heart-shaped surprise

A heart-shaped surprise

One of dozens of fuchsia species I saw in Ecuador and Peru

One of dozens of fuchsia species I saw in Ecuador and Peru

Alone and with friends, I visited Spanish colonial-era buildings, churches and monasteries and took in some wonderful museums, including one of the best of its kind I’ve ever visited: the Museo Larco in Lima, which boasts a jaw dropping collection of pre-Colombian art – and that’s just in its storerooms.

One of the storerooms at the Museo Larco in Lima

One of the storerooms at the Museo Larco in Lima

I fulfilled my lifelong dream of going to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of Peru, and the experience was sublime, rivaled only by the Pyramids.

The classic shot at Machu Picchu

The classic shot at Machu Picchu

And, as my friend Val Twanmoh would doubtless say, we survived the flight out to the Nazca Lines, ancient, mysterious drawings 100 feet tall in the Atacama desert of Peru.  Never before in my life have I experienced a plane that banked at such violent angles, for so long, and while I found the ride thrilling and actually giggle-inducing, much like roller coasters, I’ll never forget looking around me and seeing four other women, Val included, in death grips with their plane seats, paler than the sands below us, vomit bags at the ready. The respective husbands of two of the women, I feel compelled to add, seemed totally unperturbed by their wives’ distress, so compelling, apparently, were the Nazca Lines.  Go and see them for yourself.

The colibri, or hummingbird, one of the Nazca Line drawings in the Peruvian desert

The colibri, or hummingbird, one of the Nazca Line drawings in the Peruvian desert

The subdued, February hues of home are pale by comparison, but act as the perfect darkroom to my developing memories. I need a few weeks to process all that I’ve seen and everywhere that I’ve been. For a while anyway, I’ll happily settle for domestic cats, emerging snowdrops and weak sunshine.

It’s good to be home.

 

Walking in a Puma’s Pawprints

It was still dark when we entered the rainforest. As usual, we had been up at five, breakfasted by 5:30 and were in our canoe by 6:00 a.m.  for a short trip downstream. This morning, we were walking a few miles into the jungle via footpath to try to find a cotinga lek, a spot usually in a wooded area – where male birds gather to vocalize, preen and generally put on a show for female birds in search of a dapper, virile and vocal mate.  It’s the avian equivalent of a wine bar, but with cuter males and better plumage.

Fresh puma tracks in the Ecuadorean Amazon

Fresh puma tracks in the Ecuadorean Amazon

We walked quietly as day broke, the sounds of the jungle increasing as light began to filter through the canopy. Suddenly, Jorge, the Kichwa naturalist who accompanied me and walked out front, stopped and raised his hand in warning.   He pointed to the ground and put his finger to his lips.  I looked.  There were paw prints.  Big ones.  Very fresh, apparently, leading right where we were heading.  “Puma,” he whispered matter-of-factly. I broke into a huge smile. Practically all I’d talked about since arriving at Napo Wildlife Center was how I wanted to see a wild cat.  Any cat.  Jorge and Marcelo, the bird guide, had already told me every cat story they had in their repertoire, including the time a year ago that they and a European couple watched an ocelot ferry her three kittens across the creek, one at a time.  Both men looked at me expectantly, wanting to know whether to keep going or turn back. Pumas are much bigger than ocelots, their raised eyebrows said. I pointed my finger forward.    We followed the puma’s beautifully formed, deep impressions for about ten minutes, all of us treading carefully so as not to mar their perfection.  They would be gone by the next rain, and though their ephemeral nature was part of their beauty,  I still wanted to preserve them for as long as I could.  Then, at a creek’s edge, the puma’s prints vanished, most likely into the water as it walked up or downstream. We checked the surrounding trees very carefully, but the puma was gone, whether ten minutes before us, or hours earlier, I’ll never know.  Of course, the chances of actually seeing the puma were slim, but had the tracks continued, I would have kept going for as long as they did. Instead, we continued on the path and five minutes later encountered a large herd of peccaries – easily 100 of them –  heading back in the direction of the canoe.  We stepped aside to let them thunder past and then walked on to the lek.  Two hours later when we returned, the puma prints were gone, overwritten by pointed porcine hooves. Such are the gifts of the Amazon.

A Morning at the Clay Licks

Parakeets waiting their turn at the clay lick

Parakeets waiting their turn at the clay lick

A blur of blue wings as parakeets take off and land at the clay lick

A blur of blue wings as parakeets take off and land at the clay lick

I don’t keep a life list of birds, but if I did, every parrot and macaw-like bird in the world would be on it.  They’re all so smart, brassy and gloriously gaudy, I just can’t get enough of them.

No surprise, then, that parrots and macaws were uppermost on my mind when planning my trip to the Amazon. I had two major criteria: I wanted to see lots of them and I wanted to visit a clay lick.  Clay licks, for the uninitiated, are gathering spots where parrots and their relatives flock to ingest clay to neutralize toxins that are in the seeds of fruits that the birds love to eat.  The toxins are there to prevent the seeds from being eaten so that they can safely germinate in the ground close to where the fruits fall. In reality, though, birds are nature’s best planters – and pretty smart, judging from how the parrots figured out how to foil the seeds’ defense mechanism – and I suspect that many more fruit trees have been planted through a bird’s back door than have ever actually germinated in the ground where the fruits first fell.

Clay licks exist throughout the Amazon region, a fact that indigenous people have known for centuries, but that outsiders discovered only fairly recently. Now, however, much as lodges throughout the Andes feature hummingbird feeders to allow visitors to see those birds close up, so, too, have Amazon lodges incorporated trips to clay licks as one of their principal draws. Napa Wildlife Center is no exception and it boasts an impressive three licks within 15 minutes of each other.

By 6:00 a.m. we were at our  first lick – a float by, if you will.  It was located on a high clay bank on the Napo river, and our captain stayed at least fifty yards away and cut the engine so that the parrots wouldn’t be disturbed.  Mostly what we saw was a mix of mealy and orange-cheeked parrots all tightly clustered against a cliff, squawking as only parrots can and seemingly having a grand time of pecking at the red clay. They had certainly gouged an impressive hole in the bank. Our second lick was in one of the Kichwa communities, which charges a $20 fee to go in there and observe their lick from a distance of about fifty feet.  It drew an entirely different, if equally vocal clientele: hundreds of dusky headed parakeets, yellow -crowned parrots and blue-headed parrots all clamored for their turn at the muddy clay.

It was the third lick that captivated me, though.  Situated about a 15 minute walk into the national park proper, observers sat under a thatched roof structure that looked out on the lick at the bottom of a steep, tree lined hill.  When we first arrived,  the birds – all parakeets, I noticed – created a deafening cacophony, but not a single one of them was at the lick itself.  Instead, as I looked up at the trees they shimmered with hundreds of cobalt-winged parakeets, all of them squawking furiously,  in fear it seemed.  Just above them, one lone scarlet macaw sat in a separate tree, watching.  Whether it was the macaw that had the parakeets nervous or a hawk somewhere unseen I didn’t know, but I settled in for a long wait.

Over the course of the next hour, the parakeets gradually and slowly worked their way down to the lick like apple peels in slow motion spirals.  One or two parakeets always led the way: a branch or two lower, then a whole tree, and suddenly hundreds more followed until almost all of the parakeets were in the same tree.  This process repeated itself five or six times until the first bold parakeets touched the ground and finally reached the lick.  Seconds later, the lick was alive with whirling green and blue wings, the birds’ pitched squawks now those of excitement and anticipation. I sat transfixed for another half an hour as the parakeets pecked at the clay, some of them staying for long periods of time, others pecking quickly and flying away. Interestingly, the macaw never did come down in the time I was there, nor did any other species of macaw, parrot or parrotlet, save for one orange-cheeked parrot, who was like a  buoy on an otherwise entirely blue and green sea.  I wish that I had been him.

 

 

The Most Bio-diverse Place on the Planet

The approach to Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador's Amazon basin is by canoe

The approach to Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador’s Amazon basin is by canoe

An arm of the majestic and ancient saba tree

An arm of the majestic and ancient saba tree

 

A hoatzin rests on a branch close to water

A hoatzin rests on a branch close to water

A lot of destinations flaunt superlatives in their self-descriptions, and most of the time I don’t care about them one way or the other.  I’m not going to travel out of my way to see the planet’s largest ball of string, or its supposedly friendliest people.  Contrarian that I am, I might even go in the opposite direction of whatever attraction is clamoring for my attention. But when a place not only calls itself the most bio-diverse on the planet, but has science behind that claim, I am not only interested, but feel compelled to go.

That’s how I find myself in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador.

Nobody stumbles on Yasuni or Napo Wildlife Center, one of a handful of lodges located in the approximately 2.5 million acre national park and UNESCO biosphere reserve. Several hours east of Quito in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin, you have to want to come here enough to find your way to Coca, a dumpy little city that is the jumping off point for this part of the Amazon basin, then take a two-hour motorized boat ride on the Napo River, after which you disembark and transfer yourself and your luggage to a narrow canoe for a two-hour paddle up the dark and exceedingly narrow Anangu creek.  Fortunately, someone else does the paddling, so you’re free to use your hands to keep the Napo Wildlife Center-issued rain poncho around your body when the predictable deluge hits five minutes into the paddle and persists for the duration.

The experience of entering a different world begins the moment you pull away from the dock and open your eyes and ears to the Rousseauvian tableau of animals that gawk, squawk and even whistle at you as your canoe glides past them in the dark fecundity. Among my favorites on the journey: eight giant river otters, including a frisky juvenile who ignored persistent warnings from the adults to stay away from us; all six species of kingfishers found in the Amazon basin; a gorgeous zigzag heron sitting on a nest; three of the 11 species of monkeys found here; tapir, peccary and capybara tracks on the banks; and countless hoatzins, peculiar birds that eat only fruit and look eerily prehistoric. If only I had been here three days ago, when a couple in their canoe was lucky enough to see a pair of jaguars crossing the creek just ahead of them.  Even here, where gaudily colored toucans sit on a tree outside my door and steal eggs from a cacique’s nest, seeing a jaguar doesn’t happen every day or even every month.  But it does seem tantalizingly possible.

You emerge from the  narrow creek onto a lake on which Napo Wildlife Center sits.  It’s a small lodge comprised of 11 thatched cabañas mostly perched on stilts, so that when the rainy season returns every year and the water rises, the houses are still above, and not in, Anangu Lake. The lodge is owned and largely  run by the Kichwa community, one of seven distinct indigenous cultures in this area.  They also own and have control over 53,000 protected acres of land within Yasuni National Park on which there is no hunting, fishing or, most important, drilling for oil. It is that confluence of factors that causes this incredible bio-diversity to continue to thrive.  Scientists have  recorded 185 species of mammals, 180 species of reptiles, 600 species of fish, 100 species of amphibian and over 650 species of birds within this protected preserve.  The flora diversity is equally astonishing, with more species diversity in one square hectare than is found in most countries.

From my porch I see turtles, caimans, raptors, shore birds and dozens of other species of wildlife.  In the early morning, my guide and I cross the lake and walk through the still-dark canopy as owls, tinamous and other night creatures murmur their way towards daylight. We climb a 150 foot tower cradled in the massive arms of what Marcelo said was a 450 year old saba tree. Everywhere we look, the tall and virgin canopy endures, and macaws, eagles, toucans and other canopy birds perch placidly on the giant treetops like corks on top of opened wine bottles.  “The big birds from across the river have migrated over here,” Marcelo, my guide comments. “The noise and destruction from the oil companies have sent them this way.”   Indeed, far off in the distance I hear the faint sounds of heavy machinery, some of the same equipment we saw on barges on the Napo river and harbingers of roads to come. Oil is to Ecuador what gold is to Guyana, and much of the reserves lie in the Amazon basin, under the national park.  The 100,000 or so indigenous people who live in the park are split between those who want to keep oil exploration out of the area, and those who don’t, but a poll of the indigenous people showed much stronger support for relying on eco-tourism, which preserves the land and cultures of this area and returns money to the community, than on oil revenue.

All of the revenue earned at Napa Wildlife Center and its sister property, Yasuni Lodge, benefits the Kichwa communities, and hundreds of their members are employed here as guides, managers, carpenters, housekeepers, cooks and the afore-mentioned canoe paddlers, who skillfully navigate the watery shallows that wend their way through what may well be a  patch of the greatest bio-diversity on earth.

 

 

 

 

 

The Owl of San Isidro

A gathering of photographers and birders for the nightly visit from the black-banded owl at San Isidro

A gathering of photographers and birders for the nightly visit from the black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro in Cosanga, Ecuador

Posing for a close up, the resident owl at Cabañas San Isidro surveys his adoring public

Posing for a close up, the resident owl at Cabañas San Isidro surveys his adoring public

A black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro

A black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro in Cosanga in Ecuador’s Napo Province

No one knows exactly how long there have been black-banded owls at Cabañas San Isidro in Ecuador’s beautiful Quijos Valley, but they’re so well-known among birders and photographers that one is featured on the lodge’s logo, and people make special treks just to see the owls. Large in stature – about the size of a barn owl – at least one owl shows up most nights here, not for the people, as some would like to think, but for the moths and other insects that these particular owls love to eat.

Black-banded and black-and-white-owls, which are closely related, are prone to hanging out in places like hotel parking lots and illuminated walkways where the bright lights attract the owls’ favored fare.  Last week when I was on the western slope of the Andes in the town of Mindo, a resident black-and-white-owl appeared nightly at Sachatamia Lodge’s parking lot, too.

Tonight at Cabañas San Isidro, a group of American photographers was getting antsy around 8:00 p.m., when dinner  was winding down in the lodge’s dining room.  “Ok, everyone in the parking lot in 15 minutes,” the tour’s leader announced, and the rest of the guests watched as the photographers grabbed their gear and headed out.  Half an hour later, I walked over to the parking lot myself, but the owl wasn’t in the same spot it had been the night before.  It didn’t take me long to figure out where it did show up, however, because I could see the flash of strobe lights near another lamp-post about fifty yards away.

It was so amusing to see the whole group and their array of expensive cameras all pointed up at this one owl, like paparazzi stalking a movie star. The night took on the atmosphere of a film shoot, just without the makeup crews and trailers.  The owl did its thing, which was to blink its red eyes, plump its feathers and swivel its gorgeous head repeatedly while the cameras clicked madly. I snapped a picture of the group, which expanded to include three late-arriving Dutch men and a couple from Quito – all toting similarly imposing cameras and lenses and jockeying for positions – took a few hurried shots of the owl and then walked quietly back to my cabin.  Entertainment just doesn’t get much better than that.

In the Ecuadorean Countryside

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A view to the mountains

A view to the mountains

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Free range chickens outside their hen house.

Free range chickens outside their hen-house.

High montane flora

High montane flora

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe  at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

Torrent ducks on the Guano River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Torrent ducks on the Guango River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Travel writers seem to focus exclusively on the Galapagos Islands as Ecuador’s prime tourist draw, but having spent the last ten days on the western and eastern slopes of the Andes, I think they’re missing a more authentic Ecuador that also deserves to be discovered.

With birding as the organizing principle for my trip, the Ecuador that I’m experiencing – by car – is mostly rural countryside with small towns and villages, spectacular national parks, nature reserves and small lodges that offer comfortable accommodations, excellent food and wonderful wildlife in addition to birds.  There are pristine rivers full of trout and bass; challenging hiking trails on which you won’t see another soul; hot springs to soothe the most tired of muscles; and countless farm stands and simple eateries that all feature local foods, though that’s really not a term that needs to be touted here. Almost everything I’ve eaten here has been local, from fresh mozzarella to trout to chicken and most of the produce, including delicious mushrooms that were served in a soup last night here at Cabañas San Isidro where I’m currently staying.

Less than an hour east of Quito, for example, and at altitudes of up to 15,00 feet, Cayambe-Coca National Park offers stunning scenery, mountain lakes, hiking trails and the very real possibility of seeing two of its famed inhabitants: the spectacled bear and the least seedsnipe, both of which inhabit the upper reaches of the park. Though I didn’t see bears the day we were there, we did see the seedsnipe, and both my guide and the driver had separately seen bears on their last visits, less than two weeks earlier. There are no admission fees to that or any of  the parks or reserves that we visited, and on the day we were there we only saw four other people, two of whom were rangers.  The high montane flora, for anyone interested in plants, is simply spectacular, as are the vistas, although visitors accustomed to American national parks will be struck by the lack of any amenities, including bathrooms.

Heading east another half an hour past the park at about 11,000 feet is the town of Papallacta, which sits in the shadow of two volcanoes, the Cayambe and the Antisana, which are the sources of the hot springs that have turned the area into a popular tourist destination for Ecuadoreans. Accommodations in the town range from very simple to quite upscale, with virtually all of them offering access to the springs, and one or two offering full spa services.  There is also quite a nice, little botanical garden in Papallacta, as well as an excellent small inn, Guango Lodge, a few miles down the road. I stayed there and savored excellent Ecuadorean food, wonderful hiking trails along a river, and hummingbird feeders that drew hundreds of the tiny creatures every day.

Everywhere you look in this part of Ecuador there are rivers, waterfalls, farms that cultivate crops on steep slopes, and huge tracts of preserved land that keep the area appealingly wild and filled with wildlife like tapirs, pumas and agoutis. Driving the countryside in search of birds, we passed countless small farms with chickens or cows.  This area, in fact, is known for its dairy products, including cheeses, butter and ice cream.  At times, if I didn’t look too closely at the flora, I could imagine myself in Switzerland.

If this part of Ecuador doesn’t have the polish of European or North American mountain resorts, it makes up for it them with its dramatic beauty that co-exists harmoniously with the seemingly timeless traditions of farming and living from the land.