Wednesday, October 5, 2016

And it Begins Again

Brown-headed Nuthatch at the Front Yard Feeder

This is a short detour from my travel log. When we came home from Ecuador after being away for a month, my husband and I were thrilled to see that the butterfly garden we'd planted in June had filled in, grown up and burst into bloom. It's amazing what a month of heat and rain can do for a bunch of wildflowers! When we left in August a few of the plants were beginning to show buds and one or two kinds of flowers had just begun to bloom. A month later, watching the garden was like seeing a fireworks display with splashes of yellow, red, purple and green. Scores of butterflies and bees come to dance around the blossoms, hungry for nectar. The birds are enjoying the bounty, too, and just yesterday I spied a Common Yellowthroat perched on a Goldenrod stalk. I started counting last week and so far I have seen 20 species of butterfly, many species bees, flies and wasps and several species of moths. I've also found caterpillars from 2 kinds of moths and we came home to 6 huge monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. I'd say that this new wildlife garden is a huge success!

Silver Spotted Skipper on Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) in August

Gulf Fritillaries on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Cabbage White on Liatris

Eastern Tailed Blue on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Wasps and Bees on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Monarch Caterpillar and Aphids on Milkweed

When we moved to this house a year ago, I saw the manicured yard and declared in a blog that I would soon "fix that". It took a while to get it started and we hired a landscaper to make it happen faster, but here we are with a lovely front garden that attracts wildlife and fills my heart with joy. Once again our yard is an urban oasis for a hungry bird or squirrel or bee. And once again we see pedestrians and cars slow down to look at the garden, so full of beauty and life. With luck, we'll inspire other people and wildlife garden will be catch on all over our neighborhood!

New Garden in June

Garden in October
When I look out over our new wildlife garden, I remember the many people over the years who helped me learn about plants and animals and to appreciate the importance of conservation and environmental education. I'm posting this just after learning of the deaths this past week of two of those special people and am so thankful that I have been able to take the love and practices I learned from them while living in Florida and translate it to my life here in Athens.

This is dedicated to Akers and Pete.

Cucullia Moth Caterpillar on Fall Aster

Common Checkerspot on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Cloudless Sulphur on Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Fiery Skipper on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Variegated Fritillary on Coneflower ssp.

Ocola Skipper on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Bumblebee on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mindo, Ecuador

Welcome to Mindo!
If we had known how much we would love Mindo, we would have planned to stay longer. But our plans and schedule only allowed 24 hours, so we enjoyed as much as we could in a short time. We vowed to the hosts of our lodge that we will come back in the near future and stay a whole week!

Ochenta y Ocho Butterfly (Eighty-eight) at our Lodge

Mindo is a town in the cloud forest about 100 km to the NW of Quito. The difference between dry Quito and green and lush Mindo appears pretty early in the journey as you cross into the western slopes of the Andes, and according to Wikipedia, "where two of the most biologically diverse ecoregions in the world meet: the Chocoan lowlands and the Tropical Andes". We drove for about 2 hours, most of the time on narrow and winding roads up and down through heavily forested mountains and foothills. Occasional farms, clear cut with grass and cattle, stood out against the otherwise thick vegetation. We understood from conversations with our driver that development is being controlled now by the government, but that it had not been so much in the past. Farming would be difficult on steep hills, but is probably an attractive alternative in a tough economy. Hopefully the people can be convinced that there is some benefit in conserving the incredible biodiversity of this region. We saw many signs for Eco-Lodges and Birding Tours along the way, so perhaps there is money to be made in Eco-tourism.

Mindo Lago Lodge

Our lodge, Mindo Lago, was a great example of conservation tourism. The owners took what had previously been a cattle farm and built rustic but comfortable hut-like cabins around a man-made lake. Then they planted native plants and laid out a network of nature trails through the forest and around the perimeter. There is still work to be done, removing invasives and planting more native plants, but the results have been wonderful. They told us that where there had once been only cattle and one or two species of frogs, now their lake, ponds and forest plants support around 25 different species of frogs and numerous other animals. As we first walked into the open-air registration area from the parking lot, we saw dozens of butterflies and birds, including at least one giant Blue Morpho butterfly bobbing around the banana trees and bromeliads. It was beautiful. Several times a week the lodge hosts an evening "Frog Concert". People from hotels and lodges from around the area are invited for a short lecture explaining Mindo Lago's conservation story, followed by a walk to look and listen for frogs. They do not allow photos of the frogs so that the animals are not bothered by constant flashes. I appreciated their concern, though it would have been nice to document what we saw! The night we were there, it was raining steadily and the night walk had to be shortened a bit, but we saw numerous frogs, spiders, walking stick insects, interesting plants and a Rufous Motmot. I wish I had been able to take a photo, but it was raining. I had some difficulty even looking at the bird because every time I turned my head up, the water poured into my nose and eyes. But I did see it and its wonderful long tail.

Godart's Altinote Butterfly


The next morning we got up very early and drove down the road to Las Cotingas Bird Reserve to see Tanagers, Toucans and Hummingbirds. We were still a little damp from the night before, but as soon as we saw the colorful birds, nothing else mattered. This locally owned reserve is another nice example of thoughtful eco-tourism in the area and is located just off the main highway on a tiered hill behind a modest house. The upper tier had benches in front of big trees festooned with bananas hung on nails. The lower tier had benches in front of an array of simple hummingbird feeders. It was a little past sunrise when we arrived and the owner had just put out fresh fruit. We sat for a couple of minutes and the birds started to appear. At first we saw a few colorful Tanagers and a Red-headed Barbet. The owner told us that the Toucans would show up a little while later, so we took a walk down to see the hummingbirds. They just blew my mind. I took a short video that doesn't do the experience justice. Click this link or visit my smugmug website and look at the Mindo photos. But I had a hard time even looking at the birds because there were so many and they were moving so fast. Many of my photos were blurry and grainy due to the low light, but I did get a few nice ones. I only identified a few of the hummingbirds because I couldn't see any obvious markers to help me. I think I need a hummingbird field guide.

Las Cotingas Bird Reserve

Feeding Station--Lots of Tanagers!

Golden-naped Tanager
Red-headed Barbet (M)

Blue-gray Tanager and Flame-rumped Tanager
White-necked Jacobin
Possibly a Sparkling Violetear

Back up to the banana station again, this time the light was better and more birds were arriving. Then came the Toucans! First the smaller green Crimson-rumped, then came the big, loud Collared Aracaris. Toucans are bossy and they chased away most of the other birds, but eventually they all came to a truce. We saw 2 species, and several individuals of each species. We also saw Toucan Barbets and a gang of Red-tailed Squirrels that had found that bananas were easy to come by at the Bird Reserve! I meant, but forgot, to ask the owner how many pounds of bananas and gallons of sugar water she had to put out every day. It must be a lot because they eat furiously.

Black-chinned Mountain Tanager

Crimson-rumped Toucan

Collared Aracari Toucan

Golden Tanager

Thick-billed Euphonia and Others
Toucan Barbet

Red-tailed Squirrel with a prize

Another trip back down to the hummingbirds. The light was a little better down there, too, and we saw big hummingbirds with long tails and tiny hummingbirds not much bigger than a bumblebee. There is great diversity of bill shape and size, too.
Beak Diversity

Tail Diversity

Velvet-purple Coronet

Another quick visit to the Toucans, and then our tour was over. If we had been able to spend more days we might have tried to see a "Cock of the Rock", a flamboyant crimson bird the region is famous for. That will have to wait until next time.

Wildflower that Looks Like a Rhexia. Not sure.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the nature trails and walking to the actual town of Mindo to see the waterfalls. On the trail I discovered a large woodpecker, about the size of a Pileated, and identified it as a "Powerful Woodpecker". We saw a few other birds on our walk and heard, but didn't see, parrots. At the waterfall, my eagle eyed husband caught view of an Owl Butterfly taking refuge from a light rain under the large leaves of a bush.

Powerful Woodpecker

Owl Butterfly

Mindo was a really nice change after 3 weeks in the busy and loud city of Quito. Next time we visit Ecuador, we will spend more time here. And in the Amazon. And at the coast. And in Cuenca. There is a lot to see in this small and beautiful country.

Mindo Toucan Mural

Monday, September 26, 2016

Collective Intelligence

My Reference Books
When I post photos from my travels I do my very best to identify what I've seen for my website and blog. It's a bit easier when I'm photographing or posting from home because I can just turn to my arsenal of Florida and Georgia Field Guides and helpful local experts and websites. But when I'm traveling it gets a bit more complicated. It's not really practical to carry field guides from around the world in my suitcase (though I do pick them up along the way from time to time). There are good apps, and I use them when I can, but I don't always have cell coverage (or an appropriate app). But what I do have, most of the time, is access to the internet, maybe from the hotel or the airport or somewhere along the way. The trick is finding good sources of info. I ask locals when I can. But often, I'm on my own, or the people around me don't know, or I don't speak the language well enough to ask or understand. So I often turn to Google and Wikipedia, and have been fairly successful. With birds, I reinforce the search by turning to e-Bird to see what birds have been reported at that location or nearby. When I'm in South America, I also look at the Neotropical Bird section of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. (I wish that the birds on an E-bird list had links to photos so I could easily look to see if the bird is what I'm looking for, and the Neotropical Bird site is a little clunky to navigate between species to identify and compare, but they're still both very useful.) I've had pretty good luck just Googling the name of the bird, or "Birds of ___" and checking Wikipedia or looking at photos. When we went to Iguazu Falls a few years ago I took hundreds of photos of butterflies that I'd never seen before. I found several helpful websites for identifying them, but sometimes I had to resort to just describing the butterfly and location and see what came up in the Google "images" section. For flowers, I'll often search for "wildflowers of (insert town/country/region)" and a local field guide may pop up. When I'm in a Botanical Garden, I take care to photograph the interpretive signs and ID tags to look at later. Some thoughtful locations, such as the bird refuge in El Calafate, Argentina, have signs with pictures of wildlife and plants that you may see along the way. I very thankful for these! And I always grab trail literature when it looks helpful. 

Helpful Sign in El Calafate, Argentina

Local Field Guides 

So you can see that a lot of work goes into this photography/blog business. Besides taking the photo and editing it, I also have to get the information right. Whew! It's probably not truly necessary, but I'm a bit obsessive about putting things in categories. Most readers or viewers don't really care what plant family the flower comes from, or whether the bird is a white phase or the striated version. But I like to know these things, so I seek out the information. And occasionally people will find one of my photos online and ask use it for a publication or illustration, and I want to be as helpful and accurate as I can. I report my own bird sightings to e-Bird and have been contacted once or twice when I reported something that was too rare to be true. After some investigation, the investigator and I determined that I had misidentified my bird, and I changed the report. Friends have contacted me, too, and let me know that I have misidentified a snake or turtle or flower and I really appreciate the help. I'm no expert and I love to learn. So if you see something I should change, let me know! I really do want to know. I understand that there are apps now where you can just submit a photo and have it identified for you, and I may look into it someday, but I admit that I enjoy the chase.

Butterfly from Iguazu Falls. Needs ID still!

This is all a long introduction to the tough time I had figuring out what I had seen while traveling in Ecuador. My bird, plant and insect knowledge in Florida and now Georgia came from years of following experts around. In Ecuador, I did much of my exploring on my own and much of it was new. But I searched and scoured the internet and did my best. In hindsight I realize that I probably should have just purchased a field guide to the birds of Ecuador. I may still do it, especially if we ever return, and I hope we will. Ecuador is an amazing country, with the most biodiversity per square kilometer of any other nation on earth. According to Wikipedia, there are 1600 species of birds, 4000 species of butterflies, and 16,000 species of plants. Really, it's an incredible place.

Hummingbird in Papallacta. Still Needs ID!
I spent an afternoon in a botanical garden on a hilltop in Yachay, a few hours north of Quito, while my husband met with university administrators. I had a great time and saw some cool birds and plants. Luckily for me, I was in a botanical garden and many of the plants had signs. The birds gave me a little more trouble. Vermillion Flycatchers were easy, and I was really excited when they started hopping out of the bushes, but actually grew tired of them after a while because they were so plentiful! (Such problems I have!) I was really hoping to see some fancy hummingbirds like the ones in Quito. I saw several not-quite-so-fancy hummingbirds, but they were always too far away to get a good ID photo. But back at the hotel, using my combination e-Bird hotspot report/Wikipedia technique, I was able to identify a Yellow-faced Grassquit that was photographed from far away and in the bushes. The American Kestrel was easy because I knew them from home. They are very plentiful in Ecuador.

One of Many Vermillion Flycatchers

Hummingbird, No ID Yet 
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Handy Signs at the Botanical Garden
American Kestrel and Prey

A week later, when our family went to the cloud forest in Papallacta, and again in Otavalo, I finally saw some fancy hummingbirds. I bought a small guide that was somewhat helpful for Papallacta, but 
e-Bird was the best resource. Friends on Facebook and the guide who took my family on a day hike helped identify some of the plants and flowers.

Cinereous Conebill

Black Crested Warbler

Pale-naped Brush Finch

Shining Sunbeam Hummingbird

Spectacled Whitestart

Sword-billed Hummingbird
(This one made me very happy! What a bill!)

Tawny Antpitta
(I heard this bird a long time before I was able to find it, and it took e-Bird to make an ID.)

Andean Gull
Turquoise Jay and Tasty Bundle

Tree Lungwort

Lepanthes Orchid
(I was so focused on the pretty heart-shaped buds that I missed the tiny orchid flower in the background!)

Scarlet Angel's Trumpet
(The Sword-billed Hummingbird uses its extra long bill on this flower!)
Next we spent a few days at a lakeside resort north of Quito, near Otavalo and it seemed like there were many species of hummingbirds in the gardens there, but later, after looking more carefully, I realized that I had seen only 3 or 4, but that they varied from male to female, and they moved around a lot! There is a lot of zipping in the hummingbird world. The Black-tailed Trainbearer hummingbird that I had tried to catch in Quito was more cooperative this time. 

Black-tailed Trainbearer (m)

Black-tailed Trainbearer (f)

Green Violetear Hummingbird

Not Sure. Emerald? Violetear?

Western Emerald Hummingbird?

A bigger challenge came when we visited a bird reserve in Mindo, a few days later. But that, my friends, is another blog post!