Thursday, September 2, 2010

Home again

This post has two main purposes: 1) to announce that I have officially survived my 8 months in South America and 2) to steer readers (if any still exist) to my new blog: Birds on the Brain

After a 30-hour reunion with my Peruvian friends in Lima I hopped on my red-eye flight to JFK. They were a nice few days in New York catching up with some buddies from Brown and readjusting to luxurious, but expensive consumer society. Ironically about the only pictures I took were in the tropical house at the Central Park Zoo.

These are supposedly the largest pigeons in the world (and arguably the prettiest). Time to start planning a trip to New Guinea!

After flying back to to North Carolina I went almost straight to Emerald Isle for family beach week. We were delighted to learn that there were several Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests in the vicinity of our section of beach. While we missed the 3 am hatching of the closest clutch, we did get to see "turtle patrol" volunteers excavate a couple dozen survivors that were still trapped under the sand a few days later.

I'm finally back home and have just started a doctoral program at Duke's Nicholas School for the Environment. This marks the conclusion of my travels and this blog (for now). Who wants to read about environmental aquatic chemistry anyway? But for some revisiting of South American birds and updates on local bird happenings check out: Birds on the Brain (for those too lazy to scroll back to the top).

So until next time (perhaps the climate change summit in Cancun in October? and definitely the Mediterranean in May 2011) Scott is signing out.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jungle to Jungle

I had a great time at the Durand brothers lodge. It is under construction, so conditions are really basic, which I really liked and it also meant that the price was miles below any of the competion. It was a perfect setup, just the basic things that are needed and an epic old growth forest with a great trail system.
I´ve encountered a lot of impressive trees, but none with na´vi living in them! Ok, it wasn´t quite Hometree, but you get the idea. (Sorry for the avatar references, I saw it in Spanish during one of my recent 12+ hour bus rides).

Unfortunately the Harpy Eagle nestling took off sometime in the last month and wasn´t around, but there were plenty of birds around to be seen.
Oropendulas were all over the place and came in four different types. This one has the unimpressive forename of "Olive." I think it deserves better.

There were lots of bright macaws around as well, but none willing to pose for a photo. I also saw some red howler monkeys, saddle-back tamarins and an arboreal anteater called a tamandua.

So that´s pretty much what´s been going on the past few in a dirt floor hut without any electricity, wandering around the rainforest all day everyday, looking for a seemingly inexhaustable supply of exotic tropical wildlife. I could´ve easily stayed three more days or longer. In fact, I can´t wait to go back...though by the time I get around to it the place will probably be just like any other lodge: frilly, pricy and filled with tourists. Having seen the "before" picture though, it sure would be an impressive transformation. And for the sake of the brothers, I do hope things go well.

So I go from the green jungle right into the concrete incarnation: New York City. Of course I´ve got about 30 hours in Lima in seems like an appropriate halfway acclimatization point--huge city, but still Latin America.

This may very well be my last blog post for sometime. Once I stop travelling I tend to lose interest in both writing and photography and thus blogging. I´ll probably start a new more bird-focused blog that will be less about me and more about birds and written less for general consumption and more for Pajareros. I´ve already got a few names in mind...any suggestions?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hiking the gringo trail

My friend "Juan" decided to come along with me for my trip to Cuzco and Machu Picchu (he had never been to either). I think he experienced a bit of culture shock though being essentially the only Peruvian. Really the high-season tourists were almost as much of a spectacle as the ruins themselves.

We woke up at 3 am (yet another rediculous wakeup call) to go wait in line for the first bus to the ruins (at 5:30). There were already nearly 100 people in line when we showed up, so we ended up actually catching the third bus, which ended up being fine. Only the first 400 visitors are permitted to hike up the nearby peak of huaynapicchu, which overlooks the main ruins and has its own structures around its peak as well as access to the temple of the moon.

Is there really any point in putting up a picture? Everybody has seen machu picchu photos. At least this one is from a different angle (from the summit of huaynapicchu) than the cliche and includes a bit more of the surrounding topography. The views from the entire area into the surrounding peaks, a few of which are capped by glaciers, are absurd and require some sort of 360 degree camera lens to capture.

No matter where you walk around the site you are invariably ascending or descending a pretty irresponsible grade. After hiking up to Huaynapicchu, down to the temple of the moon, up to la puerta del sol (the sun gate) and then all the way back to Aguas Calientes we were pretty beat (my legs are still sore). So I didn´t really have much energy to check out the catherdrals, churches or museums in Cuzco, but these aren´t really my forte anyway.

Here´s the Plaza de Armas though, which makes for a nice photograph. If you can believe it, this was later in the day when it was less packed with tourists and yet it still looks pretty full.

Wasting no time, I hopped a night bus down to Puerto Maldonado. I´m not going into the Manu Biosphere, but another spot that should be just about as good, way cheaper and way more accessible. Last chance to see harpy eagle or contract some incurable amazonian illness.

Lake Titicaca will have to wait for my next trip I guess.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My trip up to Bosque Unchog with 66-year-old Reyes, whistling through his remaining 7-and-a-half-teeth to coax out birds, was a success. Despite a bank of clouds that rolled in around 9 am and enveloped us for the most of the day, we managed to spot our quarry just as I was ready to give up...
...the rare endemic and endangered Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager. Reyes said flocks of 7 or 8 used to be common in the area decades ago, but nowadays seeing a flock of three is cause for some celebration.

I had one last quarter chicken dinner in Huanuco before catching a bus back toward Lima.

The city had really started to grow on me and I nearly got stranded there for an extra day as the bus station was a madhouse of people trying to get places for Fiesta de la Patria, a vaguely
defined holiday period centered around Peru's independence day, July 28th.

After another 8-hour bus night I was in Chosica, near Lima, where every highschool student from the area seemed to be involved in some sort of massive marching-band-type parade. Other than that it was mostly a well-needed rest day to prepare for a trip up into Santa Eulalia Canyon.

The plan was to meet a group of avitourists coming from Lima. When it turned out that they would be getting a late start, I set out up into the canyon on my own with the assurance that they would pick me up from the side of the road around 3 or 3:30. When the sun set below the rim around 5:15 I was relieved to see an overcrowded bus winding its way up t
he switchbacks toward me. I crammed in and wound up at 3,200 meters in the cliffside town of San Pedro de Casta where I encountered a group of students from Lima planning to climb up to Marcahuasi, some Incan ruins some 800 meters and three hours up above town.
It sounded cool, so I decided to tag along rather than try to track down my lost tour group.

We set off with our 70-year-old guide at 5 am and had a gorgeous clear morning wandering around the dilapadated ruins and unusual rock formations. It was no Machu Pichu, but the views sure were stunning.

Can you spot the gringo?

We made it back into town for lunch where we discovered that the two buses that normally serve the area were both defunct. It seems most people have a "chicken bus" story from travel within latin America, but I now present to you the "cow bus."

There were three huge cows and about 20 passengers. The goal for everyone was to avoid getting trampled or covered in manure. It was a combination of hectic, hilarious and terrifying as we all lurched down steep potholed switchbacks, staring half the time off a shear 2000 meter precipice and the other half into oncoming overhanging tree branches and cactuses that raked the sides of the truck and threatened to tear desperately clinging fingers. All the while the cattle jostled and fought against their tethers like fish trying to wriggle loose from their hooks. Miraculously, through the three-hour trip, the only casualties were one tent and two backpacks (heavily fertilized), fortunately none of which belonged to our party.

My new friend, "John," a mechanical engineering student in Lima has been nice enough to let me stay with him. Though desperately in need of some decent sleep, I woke up before 5 am for the third time in four mornings to take a taxi to the marina to catch a boat out to the continental shelf with a crew of ornithologists and birdwatchers. As coincidence would have it, one of the other passengers was a profesor who completed his doctorate in zoology at Duke, where I'll begin my own PhD shortly.

Obviously a big incentive for making this trip was to see some unique pelagic bird species. But I also wanted to venture out onto the "Peru Margin" to see the area from which the sediment core was extracted that I studied for my honors thesis at Brown. What makes the sediment
as well as the marine life in the area so remarkable is the upwelling nutrient-rich water characteristic of the ocean here. High primary productivity supports high concentrations of fish and pescavores. Seeing penguins, albatrosses and sea lions was awesome, but the highlight was definitely the group of humpback whales that came up so close to the boat that it became unclear as to who was watching whom.
Whales are always hard to capture on camera, but rarely because they are too close! (I´ve uploaded this picture four times and it always comes out sideways no matter how I orient it in MS Paint...sorry).

Since I have a free place to stay and friends on holiday, I'll probably stick around Lima for some behind the scenes touring and fiesta, though this will leave me with some tough choices for how to spend my remaining time. I want to visit Machu Pichu, Manu and Lake Titicaca, but will probably only have time for one of the latter two.

I´ll be back in the US before I know it!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bienvenidos a Peru

Turns out buses are well in abundance here. Parks however can be tougher to come by.

I blasted out of Tumbes for an 18-hour haul to Lima...not nearly as bad as it might sound.

I checked into this cool hostal that had pet tortoises and parrots running around its roof deck restaurant. This Red-and-Green Macaw was trying to protect David's nether regions from an incoming pigeon poo I guess But I didn't even stay the night as it turned out. Given advice from eminent Peru-based ornithologist Gunnar Engblom, I hopped on another bus--this one a 10-hour jaunt to Huanuco. From this area supposedly one can access some of the best areas of remaining cloud forest in the country. The city, Huanaco, is not even mentioned in my Moon guidebook for Peru. This is probably because the area used to be a haven for Sendero Luminoso until recently, so it has been more than off the Gringo trail. Given my track record, this forgotten corner of the world should be making headlines any day now. I just have to find where they're building their drug smuggling zeppelins.

Huanaco is quite a bustling place and the swarms of three-wheeled taxis buzzing around through the narrow street gives it a bizarre southeast Asian feel (not that I have been). The surrounding desert hills remind me more of the Himilayas (and I haven't been there either) than the Andes I know. Anyway, it's a loud rather confusing place.

And the nearby cloud forest that brought me here? It turns out to be an hours drive away. Finding a ride there isn't too difficult unless you're on a birdwatching schedule. I arrived there over an hour later than I had hoped this morning (though this was more to do with my alarm not waking me up...maybe I didn't get as much sleep as I thought on the previous two nights' bus journeys). There were a few birds around, but the forest, at least that along the road and anonymous trails is in pretty awful shape.

While Ecuador's abundant national parks are not always managed so well, they are miles superior to the lack there of offered by Peru. And this is some 11 hours from Lima in what is supposed to be one of the best sites the country has to offer for this sort of habitat. I can't say I wasn't a bit disappointed. It is always fascinating, though sobering, to see the interface between pristine wilderness and encroaching distruction. Apparently much has changed since a team of ornithologists from LSU surveyed the area back in the 70s and disovered a handful of previously undescribed species bringing (relative ornithological fame to the area).

I did manage to see this Masked Fruiteater, one of the area's endemic specialties, right by a freshly slashed-and-burned patch of former cloud forest.

And tomorrow I'm visiting a different even more remote and (hopefully) more intact section of higher elevation cloud forest with none other than the original guide that lead the group from LSU back in '74. So it will be quite the early morning...4 am wakeup to try to get to Bosque Unchog for 6:30. Let's hope it doesn't rain!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

park bus park bus park bus

A series of long bus rides punctuated by a stop in Bahia de Cariquez to catch the world cup finals brought me to Cuenca where I successfully encountered "Mike," (the Danish birdwatcher who had beena volunteer at Bilsa).

We immediately left for nearby Cajas National Park.

It was gorgeous and had its share of interesting birds despite the rather srubby and windswept habitat. On our way it a thunderstorm came out of nowhere and pelted up with sleet/hail? Whatever it was, we went from being very hot to very cold in a matter of seconds.

We thought about harvesting some wool from this llama (or is it an alpaca? - I´m better with birds than mammals)

Next another quick 5 hour bus ride to Loja where we hiked around a park owned by the local University. Thanks to some tainted peanutbutter, I lost my breakfast and lunch (unbeliveably, my first throw up in Ecuador!) on the way up to this peak overlooking Loja.

On to Zamora, but we broke up this bus ride with a stop at Arcoiris Cloud Forest Reserve, part of Podocarpus National Park. The place was deserted, which was fine with me, because that meant nobody to collect money and free access to trails.

Zamora is probably my favorite town in Ecuador. We ended up staying at this inexplicably inexpensive hotel with an awesome roof deck that yielded great views of the town´s immense clock imbedded in the hillside.

(it says, "Zamora, Ciudad de aves y cascadas")

From here we went to (where else) another national park. Actually it was still Podocarpus, but a different section at much lower elevation than Arcoiris (900 meters vs. 2100) meaning different climate, ecology and wildlife. We didn´t find exceptional numbers of birds, which I blame on this white-faced capuchin monkey that followed us around for the better part of an hour shaking branches at us and no doubt scaring away all sorts of birds that consequently remain unknown to science.

We doubled back to loja and parted ways. "Mike" directly south to Piura, Peru on a mad 7'day mission to some remote volunteer outpost in Bolivia and myself on to, yes, another park. Though this one gets special mention as it is the largest petrified forest in South America. The significance of this claim is not really clear since the petrified trees don´t actually form a forest...they are mearly fossilized remains of what was once a forest some hundred million years ago. There is of course a new forest growing over the fallen ancients that has some impressively thick and presumably quite old bottle-shaped green Ceiba trees.

Today I crossed into Peru and I am already missing Ecuadors busses and national parks. There are supposedly some well-protected reserves near Tumbes, but they are apparently rather inaccessible without arranging a private tour with an agency. As a single traveller this is costly and apparently alltogether impossible to arrange on a Sunday. So I will probably forego the entire region and dive right into some more long bus rides down to Lima.

More Buses and more national parks!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In the land of emeralds

Before we get started here´s a pcture of Pululahua Crater that I wrote about last time around.Believe it or not there´s a charming little hostal down there with a wind turbine and solar panels and a 70-something retired electrical engineer trying to start an organic farm.

Far from this eden-like paradise down on the sticky-humid northwestern corner of Ecuador lies a gritty frontier backwater called San Lorenzo where I wrote my last update. Many concerned readers have contacted me regarding the secret drug-smuggling submarine factory that was discovered in the mangroves near this town. Indeed it was no coincidence that the 150 militia raid came on the heels of my visit to the area. Check out this photographic proof:
Above you can see the manglares de mataje where the base was hidden and below the town of San Lorenzo.
I´ve been working for the DEA all along. I can admit this now that I´m done in Manabi province where the Colombians can´t reach me for retribution. Bird watching is the ultimate cover for any spy. It´s an excuse to visit far-flung out of the way places and carry around high-end optical equipment and cameras.

But this blog post is going to focus on the past week I´ve spent in the province of Esmeraldas, meaning "emeralds." Enterprising Americans supposedly relieved the area of all its precious stones years ago, but the name still sticks.

With my work finished in the mangroves, I headed south down the coast to Sua.

This was the view from my private room that cost $8. I sure will miss the Ecuadorian prices when I´m back home.

From Sua I backtracked briefly to head inland toward Bilsa Biological Station that contains one of the largest rare patches of remnant lowland wet forest left in Western Ecuador and the Choco mega-diverse bioregion. En route I met the first gringo I had encountered in several days, a lovesick and hungover Swiss guy who scarcely new where he was going. His goal, BaƱos, being some 12 hours distant (it was at this point 2 in the afternoon) I suggested he come with me to Bilsa.

We made fast friends and promptly got stranded in Quininde where we had missed the last camioneta for la Ye de la Laguna. Fortunately it was Saturday night and the grand finale of Quininde´s cantonization day. Some sort of a celebration of political independence celebrated by fireworks and of course Salsa dancing. It made a perfect substitute for the 4th of July that I was missing back home, only it came a day early.

The fireworks were probably the most exciting I have ever seen. Not becaus eof theirhigh quality per se, but because of an almost complete disregard for the safety of spectators . They numbered in the thousands and pressed close to the arsenal of mortar tubes stationed in the city park, a concrete slab surrounded by a 12-foot high steel fence, just to make sure nobodycould escape ground zero should anything go awry. Many of the mortars seemed to have blast radiuses greater than the height that they ended up exploding so that glowing fireballs were raining into the crowd. Car alarms were going off everywhere fromthe shockwaves and everyone was constantly dusting fallout from their heads and shoulders.

The next morning "Dan" and I got up early to catch the pickup to la Ye, a 2 hours ride, which was followed by a 3-and-a-half-hour tromp down the muddy clayey "road" to the Bilsa station. That bulldozer was there to graded the road to make it passable for vehicals with 4WD, but most transport is made by horse or donkey.

The station had a few confused volunteers and researchers, but the folks who would have resmebled volunteer coordinators or directors were away on vacation unfortunately. Of course, I didn´t need any help or coordinating and set right out each and every day to look for rare Choco endemic birds with a Danish birdwatcher who used my presence to get out of volunteering responsibilities.

On my first day I got some great looks (but but no pictures) at the famous and rediculous-looking Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, an endangered species I had been trying tofind for some time. On my last day I saw probably the rarest bird I´ll ever see anywhere (except for maybe Okarito Brown Kiwi), the highly sought-after, but seldom encountered Banded Ground-Cuckoo. A large endangered terrestrial bird.

From Bilsa I left for Mompiche, a quiet off-season surfer village, and then to Bunche to visit some interns from Great Wilderness who had been working on community development projects with cacao farmers there all the while I had been at La Hesperia.

I´m currently blitzing my way south to try and dodgethe Colombians and meet up with my new Danish friend in Cuenca so we can do some birdwatching together in Podocarpus national park in southern Ecuador.

Hopefully I can sustain my phenomenal luck.