Saturday, June 10, 2023

Tapirs and COVID

 December 2021: 'Back to Normal' Comes to a Screeching Halt

So after the success of the September Colombia trip, and with the certainty that COVID was under control and in decline, I booked another trip to South America for New Year's 2021.  The big birding tour companies were just starting to get their itineraries back up after a long period of inactivity, and feeling the need to support them (and the guides and lodges they in turn support) I booked two trips ... Field Guides to Ecuador with Willy Perez in December, and WINGS to Honduras with my old mate Steve N.G. Howell in February 22.

As December came around, a new COVID variant called Omicron started to dominate the headlines but, fully vaccinated, it didn't seem like it would get in the way of the December trip.  So off to Quito I went, planning some private birding before joining the group and heading down towards WildSumaco Lodge in the Amazon.

Wednesday, December 29 - Reserva Yanacocha

Up at 3am and meeting a local guide arranged via the local ground agents.  My target for the day was Imperial Snipe and the destination was Fundación Jocotoco's marvelous Yanacocha reserve.  The reserve is situated about 45 minutes from Quito, at high altitude on the Western slope of Pichincha volcano.  It normally opens at 7am but to see Imperial Snipe we needed to be there before dawn and so had sought permission to be there early.  The guide (I honestly forget his name) showed up on time, and other than my having to ask him to wear a mask in the car, seemed like a nice enough chap.  Soon enough we were bumping our way up the entrance road of the reserve and started out along the trails well before dawn and with snipe on our mind.

Imperial Snipe turned out to be quite easy to hear, there were several calling from the dense scrub along the road, but more difficult to see.  After marching back and for along the road for an hour we had managed to catch at least brief views of a couple in the lights as they crossed the road though.  No pictures, but good enough for the list.  Not a bad start.  

Andean Guan

With the target out of the way, I figured we'd enjoy the morning of birding and indeed, the trails were very birdy.  The guide however had assumed that I wanted to see BLACK-BREASTED PUFFLEG, the mega-rarity that the reserve had been established to protect.  I did indeed want to see it, I just didn't think it was likely or even possible.  Many birders look for this species here but few see it and so I'd just assumed it would be unlikely, and not a bird that could be deliberately targeted.  

Walking the trails, we saw plenty of hummingbirds, including Saphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs and we could hear the twitter of 'pufflegs' from the dense vegetations all along the trails.  We stopped at a feeder set-up, waited a while, then kept pushing along the trail, through a tunnel and further away from the HQ.  From time to time the guide played pygmy-owl tape with some generic mobbing hummingbird twitter, which did cause the local hummingbirds to twitter back and occasionally pop up or zoom by to take a look.  After an hour or so though, the until then largely silent guide exploded into action shouting "the puffleg, the puffleg" and yanking my attention round to a trail-side tree where a small hummingbird sat on a dead twig.  It was a puffleg, the puffs were visible.  It had a seemingly all dark front, a short tail and a short bill ... we'd been watching the other two species of puffleg all morning so this was pretty obviously our bird.  I had bins on it, put them down, swung my 400mm lens around and got the bird in the frame, pushed the shoot button and the autofocus kicked in ... and our puffleg dropped backwards and away from the perch just as the shutter fired.  At first I thought I might have captured an image of some sort, but alas, just a twig.  Oh well ... 

Shining Sunbeam and Buff-winged Starfrontlet
readily come to feeders and are thus easier to photograph

So that was exciting.  I was excited, the guide was deliriously excited both to find the bird and to get his client on it.  The rest of the morning just whizzed by with more birds but also just a great mood in spectacular scenery.  Soon enough though it was time to head back to Quito and so we drove the hour or so back to the hotel with a sense of having had a great morning out.  About half way back I realized we'd forgotten to put on masks and so I asked that we do so and we masked up for the second half of the drive.  Not a big deal at the time but ... as it turns out ... the best thing that happened on the trip (the puffleg) may well have been the moment that things started to go wrong.

Thursday, December 30 - Reserva Antisana and Papallacta 

Having connected with the WINGS group and the charming and energetic Willy Perez, who was going to lead it, the morning started with everyone very ready to go birding.  The night before we'd also bumped into other birding groups including one led by Gary Rosenberg, who I'd travelled with in Ecuador 20+ years before.  Lot of birders back in the field, the sense of normality returning.  As we piled into our bus I remember being really excited that COVID seemed behind us and we could all get back to traveling for birds, the thing we all obviously loved so much.

The day's itinerary was a repeat of a day on my last Ecuador trip but who doesn't love being in the Andes and seeing those spectacular birds every couple of years.  We saw Condors aplenty at Antisana, and picked our way though the full suite of antiplano specialties.  

Andean Condors and Tawny Antpitta

We also made a stop at Papallacta ... hey when it's not cloudy you have to go look for seed snipes right? ... where we were rewarded with Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes after a long-ish search.  Then, icing on the cake, the SPECTACLED BEAR at the pass was visible again, almost exactly in the place I'd seen it a year or so earlier.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe and Spectacled Bear

Tired but sated, we pulled into Cabañas San Isidro, our home for the next three days and for New Year's.  I hadn't been here in 20 years but I was excited to visit again (I had fond memories of Oilbirds from my last visit) and catch up with the owner Mitch Lysinger, who I'd birded with in Ecuador a few years before.  It truly is a lovely spot to spend a few days, the perfect place to spend New Year's Eve and to start a new year list.

Friday, December 31 and Saturday, January 1 - Cabañas San Isidro

Where to start, lots of birding, good food, and good company here.  Two highlights come to mind though.

San Isidro has a famous owl.  In eBird it's described as Black-banded Owl (San Isidro) and few people know what species it actually is except that everyone is sure it isn't really Black-banded Owl, a species known from lowland Amazonian forest.  So until someone writes a paper and describes it as a new species, most people refer to these owls as 'San Isidro Owl'.  We didn't see the owl on my last visit so it was a priority for me this time and it turned out to be quite easy ... the owl came to the restaurant building, attracted by the moth lights.  It would sit above the deck where we stood and wait until a particularly large and succulent moth blundered into the lights, then swoop down for a quick kill and a tasty snack.  Lodge guests stood right underneath it, chatted away, took flash photographs, and the owl ... well it just didn't care.  All life birds should be this easy.

The San Isidro Owl being selective about which moths it ate

Another special visitor also came to the restaurant area at night and this one was also a lifer but not a bird.  Mitch had set up a salt lick down the slope from the same balcony and at night a Mountain Tapir was regularly coming to visit for a salty snack.  I'd seen Brazilian Tapir but Mountain Tapir is much harder to see so I was keen to wait up for it.  Initially, after dinner, I had lots of company waiting there too, but over time the group dwindled as it got later and the tapir action proved slow.  By about 9pm, Willy and I saw a shape drift out of the forest and head for the salt lick, spotlights went on but instead of a tapir we saw a Red Brocket Deer, a nice mammal, rare for the lodge, but not the one we wanted.  Finally, by 10pm, I was all alone in my vigil and got rewarded for may stubbornness when the tapir waddled our of the forest at around 10:15pm.  Such a privilege to see this creature close up and, while I know it wasn't a noble or charitable thought, I was secretly quite glad that it had waited to give me a private audience.  Wonderful natural history experience.

Mountain Tapir ... 'back of the camera' shot, I've lost the original it seems ...

I went to bed a very happy camper that day, and totally exhausted ... slept a deep sleep ... almost as though I had a bit of a fever ....

The next day was New Year's Eve and we had a great day of birding with lots of special things.  The day started with White-bellied Antpittas at the feeding station and built up into quite a big list of the local species.   A celebratory dinner was a treat but I was feeling a bit tired so skipped some of the later festivities.   I think I also sneezed a few times ... innocent enough in other times but in the time of the COVID it drew suspicious and cautious looks from the group.

More birding the next day including a jaunt over to Cordillera Guacamayos where Greater Scythebill played hide-and-seek with us.  I felt fine, but had to reluctantly admit that I had a bit of a cold.  At that point I honestly was not thinking COVID as I'd been twice vaccinated and this hardly seemed like the symptoms of a series disease, more an air-conditioner type cold with the occasional sneeze.  I expected to shrug it off over the next day but that night, at Wildsumaco Lodge, I coughed a lot and had a hard time sleeping. 

Long-tailed Sylph

Sunday, January 2 - Wildsumaco Lodge

At breakfast I felt fine, ate heartily, and couldn't wait to go birding.  My coughing during the night had not gone unnoticed though and the group were very much on guard.  For politeness I kept a distance during the morning birding and stood back at the antpitta feeding stations when the Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted Antpittas came in for breakfast.   I also managed to pick up a trio of life hummingbirds with Gould's Jewelfront, Napo Saberwing, Black-throated Brilliant joining the list.  I'd wanted to get to this lodge for such a long time that I was determined to feel fine, tough it out, and keep birding.  By mid morning though it was obvious that my sneezing and snotting was freaking out the group and so I reluctantly headed back to the lodge on my own, went back to bed, and let the group have their morning of birding without me.

When the others returned to the lodge in the afternoon, Willy suggested a COVID test and of course it was positive and, unsure what quite to do in this situation, I opted to return to the hotel in Quito until I felt better.

Monday, January 3 - Tuesday, January 11- Holiday Inn at Quito Airport

The next part is a little hazy and a little sketchy.  The ground agent and the lodge management had arranged for a driver to drive me back to Quito where I was supposed to stay in our original hotel until I felt better.  It was a long drive, I was getting worse, and was close to passing-out by the time we got back to Quito.  Somewhere along the line though the plan had changed and I was delivered to a government sanctioned quarantine hotel at the Quito Airport where I was basically detained for the next 10 days until I could get a negative COVID Antigen test and leave the country.  This was a bit of a surprise at the time, but by the time I got there I basically collapsed unconscious on the bed and was in no state to argue with anyone.  

In retrospect this wasn't anyone's finest moment.  I had no idea what was going on and was basically dropped, close to unconscious, at a hotel in a foreign city where I didn't speak the language.  While folks may have tried to explain what was going on, I did not comprehend where I was going, what was involved or why, and was in no state to understand anyway.  To be fair I suppose, one has to remember the general hysteria people in the pre-vaccine world were feeling about COVID as a threat to others, and few governments or businesses acquitted themselves well in handling the situation at the time.  As it turns out, I was actually quite sick at that point but was lucky enough to pull through after a miserable, fever-wracked, 24-hour period where things could easily have gone the wrong way on me.  I was lucky I guess.

After a day or so I was able to call a doctor in the U.S. to try to work out what was going on (not that she could do very much from there but at least was able to reasure that the worst was probably over).  I also confirmed that I was being detained against my will when I tried to leave the room to get some fresh air and was firmly escorted back there.

So there I was ... stuck in a hotel room with two books, Spanish language TV, and room service.  Three times a day the nice people from the hotel brought me a meal (of their choice) from the room service menu for locals (not the more expensive room service menu for gringos).  The staff would put the food tray on a suitcase stand that blocked the door, knock, then leave quickly ... I never saw them in person.  House-keeping was a bottle of bleach-based cleaner and a roll of paper towels left in the bathroom.  My only in-person human contact was the medical technician, dressed in full protective gear, who came once every day or so to administer the COVID test (still the eye-watering 'little lobotomy' at the time) ... and each day for 9 days, it remained stubbornly positive, even after my symptoms abated and I felt better.

Golden Grosbeak

What saved my sanity really was the fact that I was lucky enough to have a room that overlooked a weedy field next to the hotel. So each day, I birded from the window and it gave me something to do other than read and try to learn Spanish from the soap operas on TV.  On the fourth day I got a call on the phone ... it was Gary Rosenberg and he was, you guessed it, detained in the same hotel two doors down the hall.  From then on we birded together from our respective windows via text ... "Green-tailed Trainbearer heading right!" or "Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch in the dead tree" ... it wasn't much, but it helped.  

On the tenth day I got my negative test ... said goodby to Gary via text (he stayed another three days) and called American Express to get a flight.  Turns out there were no flights available to the US that afternoon and, terrified that my positive test would expire in 24 hours and I'd have to take a new one, I basically grabbed the next flight to anywhere out of the country.  Crossing the Ecuador border on the way to Panama City was a wonderful feeling.  It might be a while before I go back to Ecuador ...

Culpeo or Andean Fox