Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Comfort Zone

El Panecillo and La Virgen de Quito

I'm back on the road again! My husband and I have been in Quito, Ecuador for the past week or so while he is completing a teaching fellowship. We have spent afternoons and weekends when he is not working getting to know a bit about Quito, exploring, wandering and taking in lots of the new sights, sounds and tastes. The food is delicious, our Spanish is improving and we're having a great time!  Ecuador is a beautiful and interesting country and people here are friendly and kind.

Anteaters and Monkeys Decorate the Basilica del Voto Nacional

Our hotel is conveniently located near several universities and midway between the main tourist areas, the Historic Old City (a Unesco World Heritage site) and Mariscal Sucre (a hopping area with lots of restaurants, bars and a big craft market.) The hotel is bordered by two busy roads and the traffic is fast, loud and smelly (largely due to the buses that tear by, spewing black exhaust). The road is kind of scary to cross. Pedestrians just wait for a gap, or a lull, and run for dear life. There is a big park nearby, but we have been warned by several people that it is not safe to walk there. E-bird lists some excellent bird sightings in that park, but given the warnings, walking with binoculars or a camera just doesn't seem smart. So, I have not had much of a chance to just get out and explore on my own the way I would like to. I have done a bit of birdwatching from the hotel room and was pleasantly surprised to see an American Kestrel in a tree across the street. It was being harassed by a big green hummingbird that I couldn't quite identify, but suspect was a Sparkling Violetear. Great Thrushes and Eared Doves perch on the utility lines, and the occasional butterfly floats above the traffic, too far away for me to ID from my hotel perch. I've been eager to get out and see some of Ecuador's abundant nature! You can just imagine how excited I was this weekend when we took two outings away from the hotel area and I was able to pull out the trusty cameras! (Full disclosure--before you start to feel bad for poor pitiful me, you should know that I will have more opportunities to explore and go birding in the next weeks when we visit locations outside of the city and then head to the cloud forest in Mindo and the Gal├ípagos Islands.)


Busy Streets from our Hotel

Eared Doves on the Wires

Our first expedition was to TeleferiQo, a tram that takes you part-way up Volcan Pichincha, overlooking Quito. Quito is already quite high up--9000 plus feet. The base for the gondola starts at 10,000 plus and lets you out at over 12,000 feet. We low-landers could really feel the altitude! But we had a week to acclimate before going up and it wasn't so bad. In fact, we hiked up another 20 minutes or so to get the best views. We reached a point at just below 13,000 feet where I just did not have the air or strength to go higher, so I stopped and let the rest of the group trudge upward. (People can hike an additional 3-4 hours to the crater of the volcano, but we weren't quite up to it.) We had a spectacular view of the city of Quito and of the many snow tipped volcanos in the distance. 


Volcan Cotopaxi Surrounded by Clouds

TeleferiQo Tram and Quito Below

A sign at the gondola station warned us to be careful with fire to help protect the endangered Spectacled Bear. Our host told us that just last week one of these small and rare bears (the only kind of bear in South America) was seen walking around the station, a very special occurrence. I hoped the whole morning for a repeat, but alas, it was not to be. I did see some Llamas, though, which was some consolation.


Spectacled Bear Care

Llamas

On the slowww hike up, I caught a quick glimpse of small bird with a long tail that I now believe to have been a type of hummingbird called a Trainbearer. The hillside was alive with pretty butterflies that I have not yet identified. They stopped to feed on the stubby daisies and dandelions that hugged the ground, protection against cool, dry mountain air. I saw bee-flies, Swallows and several Sierra Finches. I could have poked around looking for birds and butterflies for hours, but we needed to get back. Still, it was wonderful to spend the morning in the sunshine and sweet mountain air. By the way, the sun is VERY strong in Ecuador, although the temperatures are moderate (60's-70's). And the sun rises very early and sets at about 6:30pm.


Dainty White Butterfly

Sierra Finch

The next day we took a cab to the Quito Botanical Gardens in Parque La Carolina, where I hoped to find some hummingbirds. Again, we were told to be careful in the park outside of the gardens, but once inside we would be safe. When we got there, and as the morning passed, I understood why. Parque La Carolina is a huge and very popular urban park, with lots of recreational activities. By noon the park was densely packed with families, street performers and vendors. Pickpocketing or robbery would be easy. But the botanical garden was fenced and you had to be buzzed in, so there were not nearly as many people. It was very relaxing to walk through the lush greenery and flowers, away from the noise and smell of the traffic. There was so much life in this small pocket of green in the middle of the city! We were met almost immediately with one of the long tailed Trainbearer hummingbirds. It flew off before we could get a good, long look, but it was a good sign of things to come. Hundreds of white butterflies danced in the treetops and fluttered through the dark green shadows. Beds of Lantana and other kinds of Verbena in sunny spots attracted orange butterflies that resembled Gulf Fritillaries, but were not quite the same. I saw huge Sulphurs, Some Painted Ladies, and a few small Skippers. Curiously, I did not see any blue butterflies or Swallowtails of any kind. And other than the giant Treefrog at the garden entrance, we saw no herps at all. There is a vivarium in the park with reptile and amphibian displays, but we didn't go there.


Tree Frog Greeting


White Butterfly on Lantana

Fritillary-like Butterfly On Lantana

This turned out to be a wonderful spot for birds. Though I only spotted 2 types of hummingbirds, the gorgeous Sparkling Violetear hummingbirds gave us quite a show, buzzing the hanging flowers and bromeliads. Great Thrushes chirped from the bushes, sounding a little like their northern cousins, the Robins. Rufous-collared Sparrows had me convinced there was some kind of Towhee calling "Drink a Your Tea". A Vermillion Flycatcher zipped past us to land in a tree. It was so beautiful that I almost hyperventilated as I snapped picture after picture. They are my husband's new favorite bird. We saw several of them, both male and female, at other locations throughout the garden. At one point I was torn between photographing the Vermillion to my left, the Violetear to my right, or the Saffron Finch at my feet. A few yards away, a Rusty Flowerpiercer tore open aloe flowers. Such choices!


Vermillion Flycatcher

Sparkling Violetear

Saffron Finch


Rusty Flowerpiercer
I had really hoped to get a good shot of the Trainbearer and cajoled my tired hubby into taking one last walk through the most flowery areas before we left. I had almost given up when I spied someone pointing a camera, and there it was! A Black-tailed Trainbearer!  I got a good look, but the rascal was too fast for me to get more than a blurry mess of a picture. I'm determined to get one good shot before we head home. The morning was so much fun. I felt like I was in paradise. 

Black-tailed Trainbearer (The head and bill are near the top of the flower and the tail is the dark diagonal line)

While we were in the garden I was floating on air. I told my husband that I really didn't need much to be happy--just set me up with my camera and wildlife and plants to observe and I can be content for hours or even days. This is my comfort zone. Sure, I love traveling--staying in hotels, eating exotic meals, visiting interesting buildings and museums. But when it comes down to it, I get my biggest thrills when I'm outside, surrounded by the world's natural wonders.