five favourite birding sites

We’re newcomers to birding. Of course we have always noticed the unknown and unusual birds we encountered in our travels. However, it was during our year in Latin America that we started to pay closer attention to our feathered friends. It helped that our wandering that year took us into the rainforests of the Amazon, down to Patagonia, across the water to the Galapagos Islands, and to both coasts of Costa Rica. That might also explain why these locations are among our favourite places for bird watching.

King Penguins near the Strait of Magellan.

Number 5. Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)

Quite frankly, we include Patagonia because we saw two of our favourite birds here: penguins and flamingos.  On Tierra del Fuego, Chile, we crawled along a sandy ridge to get close, but not too close, to watch a small group of King Penguins hanging out in the grass near the water. We also saw hundreds of Greater Flamingos gathered in a lake on the island, it’s quite something to see them in flight. Later we watched penguins congregating along the beach on Isla Martillo in the Beagle channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. Mostly Megellanic penguins except for a goofy Gentoo penguin that popped up out of the water and seemed to stagger around perhaps feeling a bit of place. [Watch them here!]

Unknown Amazon eagle about to grab lunch.

Number 4: Amazon (Brazil)

We managed to visit three regions of the Amazon River – the basin in Ecuador, the mouth of the river in Brazil, and the area where the Amazon and Negro rivers merge, 1500 km inland. All featured lots of birds, but the rainforest upriver from the junction at Manaus yielded the greatest variety of birds. We travelled into the rainforest by boat and on foot to see numerous species of parrots, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, along with the wattled Jicana, whistling ducks, grey-necked cormorants, Caracara hawks, Anhinga, Hoatzin, and the orange-fronted yellow finch, just to name a few. We also got bit by fire ants and stung by tiny gold bees!

Blue-footed booby showing off the blue!

Number 3: Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

This will surprise no one! There is an almost overwhelming richness of wildlife here, including large colonies of birds such as the Wavy Albatross and frigatebirds. We also saw Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and you know by now how we feel about that! We toured around the islands by boat, regularly landing to hike into areas and islands that are entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation and observation. We came across brown pelicans, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nasca boobys, brown noddys, finches, various herons and gulls, smooth-billed anis, red-billed tropic birds, a short-eared owl.

Marabou storks scavenge for food, sometimes fighting with vultures over carcasses.

Number 2: The Serengeti (Tanzania)

The Serengeti is a vast open gravelly plain, with rivers and lakes scattered here and there that provide the large animals with water to drink and a place to cool off. In or near the water is where you also will find the birds, although often just one or in a small group. What they lacked in number they made up for in their sometimes very wild appearance. Vultures, secretary birds, Kori Bustads, ostriches, superb starlings, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed cranes, Mariboo storks, and blue herons. Also have to mention nearby Mangara national park and the thousands of flamingos feeding in shallow water of Lake Mangara. 

One of many keel-billed toucans that dropped by to say hello.

Number 1: Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica)

The truth is, there are birds all over Costa Rica. It is hard to single out one national park or conservation area for special mention. We have been in the country four times and have hiked into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walked along both coastlines, and got up before dawn to see a Resplendent Quetzal in the rainforests near San Gerardo de dota. But it was our repeat visits to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast that ended up being quite remarkable for birding. There was a variety of shrubs near the small house we were staying in and trees all around. Every morning over coffee we would watch different birds perch nearby, eat bugs, berries or tree fruit, hang out, and eventually fly away. We enjoyed seeing keel-billed toucans, black-necked Aracaris, black-cheeked woodpeckers, social flycatchers, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds, blue-grey tanagers, streak-headed woodpeckers, blue-black Grassquits, and those are just the ones we were able to identify. In the “neighbourhood” we also spotted brown pelicans, whimbels, frigatebirds, kingfishers, and the exquisitely named Montezuma Oropendola.

hammerhead sharks and giant sea turtles

Good morning all you wonderful people,

I am writing this in the garden of our hostel in Quito, July 7th. We got our pictures back from the underwater camera and a I wanted to share with you those and our last 3 days in the Galapagos.  We disembarked at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno—- on Ilsa San Cristobal, picked up our luggage and looked on the large map of the town to see where the Ecolodge was. It wasn’t listed and we only had the address on our computer. Unfortunately the cab drivers we asked didn’t know of the Ecolodge, so off we went to find a cup of coffee and an internet connection.

As the heavens opened up and the rain came down we drank our coffee and waited for the internet. We did find the address and Don emailed Harry at the Ecolodge and quickly he emailed back saying he would pick us up in 20 minutes (I imagine he had a blackberry).

Driving to his place, Harry told us that the Ecolodge sign was promised to be ready a week ago and even though we had an address, the taxi drivers don’t go by addresses. If we would have known, we could have asked for a ride to Harry Jimenez’s house and they would have taken us right there. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else… lots of relatives in the town.

After living in the small cabin and very tiny bed on the boat, our room was like being in a palace. The bed was king size with light switches on the wall in the middle of the headboard of the bed, so you didn’t have to get up to turn the lights off… pure luxury. It had a lovely modern bathroom, air-conditioning, microwave, small fridge, tv and tables and chairs.

Our stay included breakfast which was at 7:30… we made it about 7:45 most days.  Harry and his wife looked after us very well…

We did a snorkelling day which was awesome. We saw hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, spotted eagle rays, giant green sea turtles and lots of regular tropical fish, mostly traveling in schools… great to swim with them all.

We were on San Cristobal for 3 nights and enjoyed every minute. It was a quiet place… we noticed that no one came up to us to sell us wares as we were sitting outside in cafes nor did people try to get us into their restaurants as we were walking around. It was heaven after our six months of travelling and people not leaving you alone.

We also noticed that there were no homeless dogs in the town. We asked Harry about it and he said that all the domesticated animals had a microchip inserted under their skin. Harry’s sisters dog had been stolen and she went to the authorities and they found the dog through their computer tracking program… pretty cool, eh!

Tracking of the domestic animals is important as they are living in the national park and they don’t want animals to disrupt the balance they are trying to preserve.

The other thing to note is that for the first time since we have been away we saw the full moon. The super moon that you saw in Vancouver wasn’t visible to us as we were in Buenos Aires and it was majorly overcast that night. So, our first full moon, half way through our year, it was something to be celebrated.

Anyway, our dear friends and family, you have a wonderful day. We are off to Papallacta Hotsprings about 1.5 hours out of Quito. We are celebrating my 58th today and I wish you all very much love and happiness in your lives.

(underwater photos below taken with cheap disposible underwater camera — the turtle shows up well, but the Galapagos and Hammerhead sharks were in deep water and in a narrow channel with less sunlight)

a bird eat bird world

Awesome; in every positive sense of the word. That’s the only way to describe the past eight days, cruising from island to island, crossing back and forth across the equator, and exploring life under the water, on land, and in the sky, 1000 kms off the coast of Ecuador. These are Herman Meville’s famed “enchanted islands’, better known as the Galapagos Islands.

These volcanic islands, moving toward South America at a rate of about 3 cms per year, are widely varied in terms of landscape and animal life. From the hard, harsh, and hot-under-the-sun lava field of Isla Santiago to the lush highlands of Isla Santa Cruz, each island and bay was teeming with enough unique and very visible flora and fauna to inspire birders, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Charles Darwin’s name comes up a lot. He spent about 6 weeks here in 1835, collecting samples of wildlife and vegetation. His discovery of island-to-island variations of finches and other birds and animals helped shape his thinking toward a theory of evolution (On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859).

When we decided to tour Central and South America this year, we were certainly aware of the Galapagos Islands, but we didn’t start thinking we should go until so many fellow travellers, in conversations at hostels, on day tours, and in restaurants and bars, insisted that a year in this part of the world would not be complete without a visit. The final push came from a British couple we first met in Guatemala who were also doing a year on the road, and who visited the Islands in March while we were in Chile. They e-mailed us with the details of their experience, and when we crossed paths again in April in Peru, they convinced us it was worth the effort. We`re glad they did.

There are two ways of seeing the wonders of the Galapagos Islands – from a boat equipped with dinghies for landing at beaches, hiking trails, and snorkeling areas — or on day trips from one of three main cities. We opted for an eight day cruise aboard The Eden, an 80-foot yacht with eight cabins and a crew of five. The itinerary included stops at many of the islands: Genovesa to the north, Floreana and Espanola to the south, Bartolome and Santa Cruz in the middle, and San Cristobal to the east. Each day featured two or three excursions with our guide, Eduardo, who helped us understand how the islands were formed, the different currents and weather systems that effect plant and animal life, and the human history of the islands. He pointed out endemic species (only found in the Galapagos), native species (found here and elsewhere), and animals and birds introduced on purpose or by accident by pirates, whalers, and settlers.

For the first four days we were a group of eleven, and then some left and others joined us to bring the total to 16 passengers – from as far away at Sweden, Holland, Russia, Israel, Australia, France, Ireland, Greece, and the US and the two of us, the only Canadians. We were all astounded by the diversity of wildlife along the trails, on the beaches, and in the water – and we were all excited when someone, frequently Eduardo, spotted a new bird, animal, or underwater creature. We could hardly go more than a few steps on the ground or a few metres through the water before seeing more fascinating creatures. Mostly don’t pay humans much attention. Park rules are to stay two metres away from wildlife and to stay on marked trails – hard to do with Blue-footed Boobys sitting on nests in the middle of the trail or juvenile sea lions swimming into our midst to play as we snorkel across a bay!

The islands are teeming with life, but every time Eduardo introduced a new bird or lizard and talked about what it ate, it was disturbing to hear that the main food for so many birds are the eggs of other birds, chicks, and baby turtles. From mocking birds to Frigatebirds to Galapagos Hawks – they are all on the constant lookout for unattended eggs, new babies, and even injured or dead adult birds. Frigatebirds even swoop down and steal the meal the Boobys are regurgitating for their young! A real bird-eat-bird world! Nevertheless, there are large colonies of many species of birds on the islands, although some, because they’re not as careful with their eggs, are at risk, such as the Greater Flamingo and the American Oystercatcher.

Our excursions included treks across lava fields, hikes up mountains to cliff side bird colonies and dramatic viewpoints, walks along the shore, climbing down into a 400m section of a lava tunnel, and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. This centre is one of two in the islands where the giant land tortoises are bred and raised for repopulating the islands. Sadly, a famous giant tortoise by the name Lonesome George, the last of his kind from Pinta Island, died the day we arrived in the islands. Our guide was sad because he volunteered at the centre while in high school, and later brought hundreds of tourists to see George, who was at least 100 years old. Diego, another very old giant tortoise at the centre, will now likely get more attention.

Our cabin on the boat was really small, and there’s no way it was a full double bed. That would have been okay except the boat was on the move through rough seas on four of the seven nights which made restful sleep impossible. The boat really rocked and pitched – there was a real feeling that we would be tossed from our bed at any moment. Such was the price of getting around to so many islands in just over a week – but we’re sure glad we did. The pictures below show much, but not all, of the birds and animals we encountered. We will have some additional underwater pictures once the film is processed back in Quito later this week. In the meantime, enjoy (and if any birders out there spot any identification errors, let us know and we’ll make corrections).

We’ve just passed the halfway point of our year on the road – the past six months have been remarkable, and we have some solid, some vague plans for the next six months. In the short term we have two more nights on Isla San Cristobal before we head back to the mainland and research a trip into the Amazon basin. From there, we’re looking at spending some time in Brazil, then maybe Colombia and Panama. We are going to spend October on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and finish the year with stops in Cuba and Mexico. Any suggestions, dear readers?