Monday, August 16, 2021

The Quest for the Spectacled Bear

February 2020: Two days in the Andes around Quito looking for one of my 'Bucket-List' mammals.

Ecuador was the first country I visited in South American, way back in 1994,  I did a 'classic' two week Quito-Guayaquil trip with Steve N.G. Howell, a childhood friend from Wales, hitting all the best knowns spots in the Quito area then driving down to the Pacific and birding along the coast.  Six years later I went back, also with Steve, and spent a week in the Eastern Andes and a week in the Amazonian lowlands at Yuturi Lodge.  Then somehow it took me 20 years before I got back for my third trip ....

The plan was to join Mitch Lysinger and his Field Guides group for a week of birding in the very SouthEast of Ecuador, a trip anchored in a visit to the Maycu Reserve with the hope of seeing Orange-throated Tanager.  The tanager is a bit of a star bird, and historical border disputes in it's limited range, along with heavy military presence, had made it a very difficult bird to see until recently.  For me though, the trip was a bit of a 'low effort' thing ... the schedule worked with mine, the price was right, and I had met Mitch before and liked him.  This was really meant to be a quick trip before a series of more extensive, expensive private trips and rarity chasing in Brazil ... little did I know at the time that COVID was about to change everything and it would be my last overseas birding trip for 18 months. 

I arrived a few days early in Quito, planning for another quest before joining the Field Guides trip.  I had something I wanted to do ... to look for and see a Spectacled Bear, one of a number of big, charismatic, South American mammals that I'd never been lucky enough to bump into.  I'd recently made a bit of a 'bucket list' of most-wanted neotropical megafauna and planned to pay more attention to opportunities to see them ... I'd seen Maned Wolf, Giant Anteater, Giant Otter and Brazilian Tapir but not yet bumped into Jaguar, Puma, Pink River Dolphin, or Spectacled Bear).  On this trip, I'd have two days to try; one on my own with a local guide, and one with some of the Field Guides participants arriving early to bird (or bear) in the mountains around Quito before the trip got underway.   Given the local intel and recent sightings I was feeling pretty good about finally getting Spectacled Bear for the mammal list.

Saturday, February 22 - Reserva Antisanilla and Reserva Antisana

An early start from the hotel and we were off up the mountains to the South of Quito and towards the giant volcanoes of Cotapaxi and Antisana.  The Reserva Antisana wasn't even a publicly accessible area last time I was in Ecuador but had since been brought out of private ownership and opened up a huge area of paramo and related habitat that was now easy to access via a network of roads.  Our first destination was Restaurante Tambo Condor in the adjacent Reserva Antisanilla ... which despite the name does not actually serve condor-dishes but rather serves carcasses to the Andean Condors, part of local conservation efforts to bolster this spectacular but sadly declining species.

Pulling over near a small farm, we entered a field and walked to an observation platform from where we could look across the valley towards the condor feeding area.  From here we could also scan a lot of habitat and the guide assured me it was our best chance to see a bear.  The first things we saw though were hummingbirds, mostly old friends; Tyrian Metaltails, Sparkling Violetears, Black-tailed Trainbearers and a spiffy Shining Sunbeam.  There was also a cooperative Giant Hummingbird, a species really pushing the limits of just how big you can be and still hover, and so I had plenty to keep me occupied while we scanned the distant hillsides.  There was in fact a Condor, a huge black and while lump looking tiny in the distance across the valley, but there was no bear.

Giant Hummingbird
Giant Hummingbird

 So onwards and upwards we went onto the altiplano, a vast, tundra-like plain that spread out around the base of the volcanoes and stretched off miles in all directions.  The birds here were all familiar, and mostly, well, brown.  That didn't mean they lacked charm though and many of them I hadn't seen in years so I really enjoyed catching up with them and even getting a few photos.

Chestnut-winged Cinclodes (above) and Stout-billed Cinclodes

Carunculated Caracara and Black-winged Ground Dove

The most obvious birds were perhaps various cinclodes and the patrolling Carunculated Caracaras, but there were also Sedge Wrens (split coming soon), Many-striped Canasteros, Andean-Tit-Spinetails and all manner of small skulking brown jobs lurking in the low vegetation.  The oddest bird of the day though was one you really don't expect to find of vast treeless plains despite it being common and widespread across a huge range encompassing North and South America.  Flushing a Great Horned Owl (a species that breeds near my garden in New York) underfoot in low scrub while stalking Tawny Antpittas was a bit of shock and provided a moment of excitement for us both ... the bird flew to a nearby bank and glowered at us.  Well it wasn't a bear, but at least it was a predator.

Tawny Antpitta and Great Horned Owl

Too soon though it was time to retrace our steps and, even though we spend several more hours scanning likely habitats, there were to be no bears today.  Back to Quito for me, another night in a nice hotel, and 'Round 2' with the bears tomorrow.

How do you hide a volcano ... in the Andes is seems easy ...

Sunday, February 23 - Papallacta Pass and Guango Lodge

A more civilized start today and it took a little longer for the group to get organized and underway.  I'd reconnected with Mitch Lysinger, an American Bird-Tour Leader who's been living in Ecuador for many years, the night before and met some of the tour participants.  Some had spent the day birding the Mindo Road and so had already seen a lot of birds and even a Tayra, and all were excited to go up into the higher altitude of the 'Andes proper' today.  

The 3,300m altitude of Papallacta Pass sounds impressive, but when you're already at 2,800m in Quito, it wasn't really that much more altitude to gain and soon enough we came out of the farmland that surrounds the city and emerged into the higher level grasslands and paramo at the pass.  The birds here were similar to what I'd seen yesterday, but then I wasn't here for the birds and I spent every moment diligently scanning the hillsides for black lumps that might be bears.  The morning session though yielded some look-like rocks and tree-stumps but nothing that could have been a living spectacled bear.  Luck just wasn't with me on the bear front.

After a few hours in the higher country, we dropped down the East Slope of the Andes and spent several hours birding, and had lunch at, Guango Lodge.  This lovely little roadside property had a nice mix of habitat and a very impressive array of hummingbird feeders so I spent a very pleasant time soaking up the hummingbirds ... no-where does hummingbirds like the Andes.

The two most common species at Guango - Fawn-breasted 
Brilliant and Buff-tailed Coronet.

Tyrian Metaltail and Tourmaline Sunangel

Eventually though it was time to tear ourselves away and with our timing drawing to a close, we turned around and started heading back to Quito and our flight to the South.  This was after all just a 'pre-trip' and 'buffer day' and the main targets of our tour lay a plane ride away.  I was, to be honest, just a little in shock that I could bird hard for two days in Ecuador and not get a single lifer but I suppose, after a certain point, it gets harder everywhere and I had visited similar habitats several times before.  Still, I really enjoyed catching up with some birds I hadn't seen in many year and there's no such thing as a bad day of birding.

Starting the descent from the pass down towards Quito, we passed through a wide valley with extensive grassy slopes and a few scattered patches of scrub stretching out above us on both sides of the road.  From any given point here it was possible to see a huge area of grassland and so Mitch suggested we stop a few times on the way down to 'scope for bears'.  Now, after all the trips I've taken, I'm wise to the ways of leaders, those masters of suggesting the possible to keep people engaged, excited and interested on long drives, and so to be honest I had low expectations.  But I appreciated that Mitch remembered my desire for a bear and was willing to keep trying even if I figured the chances were extremely low in a place like this.

A mile or two later we pulled off the road and all got out to scan the slopes across the valley.  There was, between eight of us, only one scope and so other than Mitch, we were all scanning at long range with bins.  It was all very relaxed until Mitch, staring through his scope, casual announced "I've got a bear".  Then suddenly it wasn't quite so relaxed any more and we scrambled to form a line behind the scope for our 'first looks' (in group birding, once everyone in a group has had a quick 'first look' you can go back for more leisurely 'second looks' knowing that everyone has seen the bird, I mean bear).  I was second or third on line and put my eye to the scope for literally a three second 'first look' but right there, in the center of the field of view, was a big, shaggy, white chested, black bear with tufty ears.  The SPECTACLED BEAR, exactly as I'd imagined it (only half a mile away on the other side of the valley) walking towards us in long grass.  I stepped back, allowed the next person on line to get on the scope, and paused to burn the brief image into my memory ... what an awesome animal.  That euphoric feeling of seeing a long sought target started to swell up in me and I was practically bouncing with a sense of well-being and accomplishment, what a great day. 

The next person on line also saw the bear and then the great beast seemed to lumber behind a low ridge.  Mitch gave us rough directions to the sighting and we all scanned with bins, confident that the bear would emerge again, perhaps even closer.  When it didn't, we jumped on the bus and rolled a quarter mile downhill to what we all expected to be a better vantage point, leaping out and starting to scan ... no bear.  Remembering that not everyone had seen the bear, the mood turned tense and we all worked hard to try to re-find it.  How could we lose a great big lump of black-and-white mammal in a background of largely sand-colored grass?  But lose it we had, and despite a diligent search we never did re-find it.  

On the ride back to the hotel, I was of course jubilant but had to hide it with people on board who had missed the bear's brief appearance.  Luckily, they seemed to be good sports, or just not that troubled by missing the animal (I think most were on their first trip to Ecuador and had had many lifer birds already that day) but still, the celebrations were a bit muted.  I was a very happy naturalist though ... I might not have had any new birds but I had a life mammal, and a star one.  Now it was time to head South for a new mission, to see if I could find my 5,000th species of bird.

Somewhere in this photo lurks a Spectacled Bear ...

And here's one I took earlier ... well actually one I took later.  A photo of what was, almost certainly, the same individual bear, taken at the same spot, two years later ...

Monday, May 31, 2021

New Year's in Panama

December 2019: A Few Days at the Canopy Lodge over New Year's Eve/Day

I wanted to go somewhere wild and natural for New Year's Day 2020; it's always good to start the year list somewhere exotic with the prospect of a large list of birds on the first day of the year.  Starting the year in New York is OK I suppose, but American Crow and Herring Gull as the first two birds on the list just isn't all that exciting year after year.  So I always try to be somewhere a bit more exotic these days ... 2019 was Ghana, 2018 was South Africa.  For January 1st 2020 I had planned to be in Brazil but somehow plans were just not coming together.  I worked on options for several weeks and slowly realized that I just wasn't getting anywhere.  Frustrated, I was about to give up when I saw an email from the Birding Tour Company Field Guides offering last minute spaces on a week-long trip to the Canopy Lodge in Panama.  "Why not?" I thought.  Jesse Fagan was leading it, a great birder and a really interesting character who I'd met a few years ago in Peru.  I'm generally not a great fan of group tours but this sounded like it might be just fine ... a low key week in a nice lodge, the chance for a good handful of lifers, and no hassle as Field Guides would take care of everything.  "What the hell" I thought ... I was in ...

Saturday, December 28 - Panama City

Panama really isn't that far away.  A five hour direct flight from New York and you're right there and close to a lot of good birding spots.  I hadn't been to Panama since a trip to the Darien in 2003, a remarkable roadless area where we'd hiked Cerro Pirre for the local endemics and stayed at an old mine camp in a forest thick with life.  A quick look at my 'needs list' for Panama on eBird gave me an encouraging list of 75+ possible lifers but by the time I broke them down by province and season, then further whittled them down in reference to the Field Guides trip list, it looked like I had about 20 realistic possible life birds ahead.  An interesting number though because at the time my life list was 4,980 ... would I make 5,000 on this trip?  It seemed a stretch but it was certainly intriguing.

After meeting up with Jesse at the hotel, or catching up really, we met the rest of the group, all of whom seemed to be professors from U.C. Davis and were traveling together.  I was definitely the odd one out here, and Jesse had been a little surprised to see me sign up for a group trip but I reassured him I was just there to chill, no expectations, I was filling in an open week and happy to see what I saw.  And so a nice dinner, group introductions, and we were ready to start birding early the next morning.

Sunday, December 29 - Panama City to Canopy Lodge

Not everyone on a group trip has made dozens of previous trips to the Neotropics it turns out.  So group trips tend to start slow to give participants a change to acclimatize to the birding conditions, get familiar with the common birds and get into he swing of group birding.  We started out with a very pleasant morning walk in Park Natural Metropolitano in Panama City itself and had 35 species of (mostly) common birds and some Central American Agoutis while we 'worked out the kinks'.  The group wasn't terribly hard core but they were all smart and interesting people and capable and keen birders so I figured the week was going to work out just fine.

The drive out to the lodge actually wasn't that long in the end and soon we'd all settled in to our very nice rooms and were familiarizing ourselves with the local birds.  Some very familiar faces here; Louisiana Waterthrush and Summer Tanager on their wintering territories, but also some decidedly tropical looking birds like Golden-hooded Tanagers.  The lodge grounds are quiet lovely and very birdy, so not a bad place to spend a few days.

Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager

After dinner that evening, conscious no doubt that some of us were super primed to keep looking at wildlife, Jesse offered an optional night prowl.  In the end only a couple of us took him up on it but it produced some goodies.  I scared the life out of a Central American Woolly Opossum in a tree near the lodge when I turned on my spotlight ... who knew they could move so fast?  We also spent some time with the Orange Nectar Bats that came to the hummingbird feeders are night before taking a UV light and going on a scorpion hunt, ultimately rewarded with a half dozen individual scorpions including a pair involved in some sort of mating activity.

Monday, December 30 - Canopy Lodge and La Mesa Road

Our first proper day at the Canopy Lodge and a relaxed and bird-filled start to the day.  We drove a ways up the La Mesa road and stopped in an area of gardens and fields where the trip list quickly burgeoned with the common forest-edge birds for the region.  Once sated we got more serious and proceeded up to the La Mesa trail where we walked several kilometers along the ridge-line trail, checking each of the forest patches for whatever might linger there.  

The way out produced nothing terribly exciting save for a quick look at a life Emerald Tanager for me, the local guide, and a couple of lucky group members.  The way back however, proved far more interesting when one of the Davis crew, who had been lagging back, described an interesting bird she'd seen hopping around in the undergrowth.  Mindful of the possibility of Black-crowned Antpitta, we circled back and worked our way into a narrow strip of forest between the road and a farm field and sure enough, there it was, skulking craftily in the dense undergrowth and allowing only brief and fragmented views.  But what a bird ... this pittasoma is a dumpy, tail-less, thrush sized bird with a round body, huge bill, and and endearing habit of bounding from perch to perch in the understory.  The black cap is striking, mostly for sitting atop a rich rufous cheek, and the the chestnut-brown back contrasts with pearly-white underparts scalloped with bold back half-moon patterns.  It really was very special bird and one of my key targets for the trip ... a perfect end to the fist morning.

After lunch and a siesta, we headed out again and worked some gardens, fields and woodland at a housing development called Casa Iguana.  Not the most pristine of habitats but it was birding and came with the added bonus of a stakeout Spectacled Owl, a big lump of an owl and strikingly patterned.  I'd seen this species before but I never tire of seeing owls during the day so quite a treat.  The fields and empty building lots also yielded a lifer me me ... Garden Emerald ... not the most exciting of hummingbirds but hey, still a lifer.

Spectacled Owl

Tuesday, December 31 - Altos del Maria

After yesterday's great start we had great expectations for the trip 'up the mountain' to the higher elevation forests at Altos del Maria.  The region seems a popular area for wealthy Panamanians to build second houses and we birded largely from a road network that criss-crossed the forest to accommodate luxury housing on large lots.  The only thing missing were the houses, which for whatever reason had never been built, or at least had not been built yet.  Putting such thoughts aside though, we started to get to work on looking for the various specialties that could be found here, which included a half-dozen potential lifers for me.

First up was a quick stop at a known lek site for White-tipped Sicklebill, a spectacular streaky hummingbird with a remarkable bill designed for feeding on the deeply curved flowers of heliconias.  The bird was exactly where the local guides said it would be so was quickly scoped and added to the lists and we pushed on, ignoring the ominous signs on impending rain, in search of more.

Further up the road another successful forest stop yielded great looks at two shy and difficult-to-see forest birds, both of which were new for me.  The Streak-chested Antpitta sat in the open and allowed itself to be scoped, while after a little more work, a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove allowed itself to be seen peaking from the undergrowth in response to our tape.

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove

So we were on a roll and turned our attention to a new site where we thought we'd heard the enigmatic Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, a tiny bird with an odd, patchy, range stretching from Costa Rica down to Ecuador.  It was a lifer and I really wanted to see it ... and then the rain came.

I admit that I am stubborn, and so quite happy to ignore anything but the most inclement of weather, especially when I think I can hear a life bird.  I was very focussed on the tyrannulet and also on a Snowcap, another lifer, that I glimpsed briefly at the same site.  As the rain got heavier and heavier though, even the most polite and accommodating for my birding companions slowly gave up and drifted back to the van.  When the rain reached truly thundering proportions, and I was standing alone in the deluge, utterly soaked, and quite unable to hear or see much in any case, eventually even I had to give up the ghost and surrender.  There would be no more birding that day (save for some civilized squirrel-watching, beer in hand, at the lodge feeders) and I fretted about how long this seemingly endless rain would last.  We only had a few days and I'd heard or glimpsed two lifers but been denied by the weather, I could feel the chance of 5,000 slipping away.

Wednesday, January 1 - Canopy Lodge (Area)

So what would my first bird of 2020 be?  In the pre-dawn light I could hear a lot of birds, even had some idea of what some might be, but decided to wait on a bird I could actually see.  In the end, Rufous Motmot stole the prize, swooping in to the feeders in the dawn light ... and we were off for 2020!

Rufous Motmot ... my first official bird of 2020.

The next question was what would my first lifer of 2020 be?  And that was answered an hour later on the trail at Cerro Gaital where I saw and heard my first ever Spot-crowned Antvireo.   Not a bad way to start the year and in fact this trail was very birdy yielding nice views of the skulking Black-faced Antthrush, a novelty Brewster's Warbler, and even a Hoffman's Two-toed Sloth for extra measure.

Northern Schiffornis

The bird continued later in the day at Camino La Mesa - Rio Indo with a nice mix of birds including an assortment of 'ant-things' and a spectacular Brown-billed Scythebill.  Then back to the lodge for siesta and back at it for post siesta birding in another area of fields and forest edge to flesh out the list.  

Brown-billed Scythebill in the darkness of the forest

Thursday, January 2 - Bosque del Galicia / Altos del Maria

Started the day back up in the clouds in the higher elevation forest where I quickly added my life White-vented Euphonia among a lively mix of birds that included good looks at Black Guan, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, Spotted Barbtail and even a few friends from home like Blackburnian Warbler.  The highlight as we left though was a perched female Snowcap doing it's best to make up for the terrible views I'd glimpsed of the male in the rain a few days earlier.

Snowcap ... the males are flashier, but this one was cute ...

Leaving the pristine core of the forest aside we paid a visit to a landscaped mini-golf-course area nearby and were immediately rewarded with two lifers for me ... the White-tailed Emerald and the Rufous-browed Tyrannulet ... I guess if you leave the big trees and patches of the native woodland, the good birds can cling on.  

One bird I really wanted to see what the tiny Rufous-crested Coquette ... a very ornate hummingbird that was reputed to visit the flowering trees back at the lodge.  I'd already invested several hours watching those tree when I really should have been enjoying my siesta but with no luck.  Today though, the weather was on our side, and as the sun broke through the clouds and the rain held off, our local guide spotted a coquette sitting out in the open near a small lake and we all enjoyed long leisurely looks.  And I enjoyed an uninterrupted siesta.

The evening birding at Valle Chiquito was kept adding more species and actually took us to a four Motmot day ... Rufous, Lesson's, Broad-billed and Tody ... very appropriate for a tour lead by Jesse Fagan who goes by the nick-name of "motmot" in the birding world.

Collared Trogon

Friday, January 3 - Drive back to Panama City

Friday was a travel day but we took the 'scenic' route back with a number of stops in different habitats to fill out the trip list.  At one of them I got my final life bird if the trip ... Veraguan Mango ... bringing my life list to 4,997 and meaning that 5,000 would have to wait for the next trip.

We ended our birding at a delightful beach stop and picnic near Santa Clara where we added a few loafing terns and sea birds, some lovely views of the Pacific, and got to savor a great week of birding with some good food and a cold cerveza ... who knows, maybe I'll do another group trip one day ...