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A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America – Alexander F. Skutch: 1977

Poza Honda/Manabi Province/Ecuador – Searching random books to confirm a bird identification, I appreciated Alexander Skutch’s description of the Streaked Flycatcher.

The mention of an eclipse seemed timely for today’s post:

“…The big Streaked Flycatcher, which closely resembles the Sulphur-bellied in plumage, likewise seeks a high, conspicuous station to deliver his soft, sweet, clear-toned kawe teedly wink, which he may repeat with scarcely a pause for nearly half an hour. Like the Eastern Wood-Pewee, he often sings after sunset in the same pleasant strain, and at times more briefly, in a more subdued voice, in full daylight. One March, a partial eclipse of the sun caused a Streaked Flycatcher to begin his crepuscular song soon after four o’clock in the afternoon.” Alexander F Skutch: 1977 A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America “The Dawn Songs of Tropical Birds”

As what often happens when I reach for a favorite book, my attention veers to random samples of those beloved pages. In the epilogue, The Appreciative Mind, Skutch shares a story about sensory overload when migrating birds filled the Costa Rica forest with sights and sounds.

“As I stood enjoying the incomparable spectacle of tropical nature in its blithest mood, my spirit, soaring upward toward the high treetops and the birds that flitted through them, lived and felt with rare intensity. In this exalted state, I began to reflect upon the immensity, in space and in time, of the forces and processes to which I owed my presence here, the multiplicity of circumstances that contributed to my enjoyment. A star that can contain a million earths was sending its rays through ninety three million miles of space to illuminate the woodland for me….without prompting or aid by me, the trees that soared above me had been slowly growing for hundreds of years before I took them under my protection. Some of the birds around me had made long and perilous journeys in order, I could almost believe, to grace my woodland by their presence… – More than this, sunshine, trees, birds – the whole great spectacle of nature – would have meant no more to me than a stone or clod of earth had I not been prepared by a long evolution to perceive and respond to them…”

I realize my good fortune to have spent a large percentage of my life in deep harmony and immersion in nature. Those timeouts in urban or semi-urban settings have been just enough to offer a balance – and to remind me to cherish the gifts of ‘the woodlands.’ This new location is a bridge between the coastal ecosytems and the cloud forest; Thoreau might agree that it has reawakened all of my senses.

The still-intact tracts of forest provide abundant food and shelter to the wildlife, and the tamarind tree, easily viewed from the house, provides a high perch, ample branches, and presently a bumper-crop of fruit.

The yards and gardens offer sometimes-exotic options, like the very-popular plantings of carambola, known to English-speakers as Star Fruit. The birds seem to have little fear of my presence, which I credit to the locals and their willingness to live in harmony with nature. Even the dead citrus still stands, and yesterday I witnessed a family of Red-rumped Woodpeckers gleaning for insects.

Last week’s VIP drop-in was the Orange-fronted Barbet. This pair stops by most every morning for a breakfast of starfruit.

Skutch’s chapter ‘The Emerald Land’ begins with a description of a journey that started by boat, then on foot and later horseback from Esmeraldas to Santo Domingo in November 1940:

“…Early the next morning we continued upstream, going most of the way on foot while the boatmen toiled valiantly with their poles to force the big canoes upward over many low rapids… Toward noon we reached the confluence of the Blanco and Quininde, two rivers of nearly equal width whose waters join to form the Esmeraldas. We had reached a point about sixty miles above the river’s mouth and were about one hundred and twenty feet above sea level, as we stood on the point of land where the parent streams mingled their currents. …

Typical boats on rivers in this area.

The hamlet of Quuininde, known aso as Rosa Zarate, the most important center of population in all this region, stood upon a high bluff between the Blanco and the Quininde rivers. It contained a dozen rude houses, some of which were falling into ruin, two little shops that sold provisions and cheap wares, the alcaldia, or town hall, and the school. The last was a structure with walls and floor of split bamboo and a roof of corrugated sheet iron, all perched upon high posts. Since school was not in session, we occupied this building during our two nights in Quininde…. We went by canoe for about two miles up the Rio Blanco, between shores embellished by luxuriant vegetation that was, if possible, even more beautiful than that along the Rio Esmeraldas. Near the mouth of a creek, we scrambled up a low bank and entered the forest along a logging trail. Huge wide fig trees, standing well separated, dominated the rather open woodland, above an exuberant undergrowth of moisture-loving plants. Slender palms towered everywhere. Here we found the Sande, a species of Brosimum with such tall, straight, imposing trunks that the Exmeraldans called it el rey de la montana – king of the forest. From incisions in the brown bark a white latex flows in such quantities that it is sometimes used as a nutritious drink, as Alexander von Humbolt recorded long ago of this or a similar species in Venezuela…


“…The following morning we took leave of our boat crew… by half past eight the pack animals were loaded…and we started under a light drizzle… The mule trail from Quininde to Santo Domingo, a distance of fifty-three miles, followed the route of the proposed Quito-Esmeraldas highway… To judge by the condition of the trail, it could hardly have been used by anyone except the post-carrier and infrequent travelers like ourselves. A hundred yards beyond the outskirts of the village, we found the way nearly closed by bushes, giant herbs and fallen trees… For two whole days we struggled slowly along this neglected trail… save for a few isolated huts along the shores, we saw no occupied dwellings. We passed not a single traveler on the long day’s ride. We rode steadily through the day, without a pause for rest and refreshment; not until the afternoon did we realize that we had passed Thanksgiving Day with no dinner at all!…After riding seventeen miles, we halted in the evening beside the Agua Colorada, a small stream of swiftly flowing water that fell into the Rio Cocola a few hundred feet below our campsite…

After tucking the edges of our mosquito nets under our air mattresses, all around to keep out venomous snakes and spiders, we soon fell asleep, and passed a peaceful night in the midst of the vast forest…” The forest through which we now rode wa much the same that through which we had passed on the preceding day. Its outstanding characteristics were the scattered distribution of the big dicotyledonous trees and the abundance of tall palms. These palms, chiefly belonging to two species of similar aspect, both called Pambil, had slender, columnar trunks that often rose to a height of from a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet and upheld a narrow crown of big, pinnately divided fronds. They were supported at the base by spiny pro roots that extended well up the trunk, and they had well-developed green crown shafts. These towering palms lifted their heads above all but the tallest of the dicotyledonous trees and accounted for from 25 to 50 percent, and in spots even more, of the higher trees…”

The chapter leaps forward to Skutch’s second visit to the same area: “…Thirty-four years elapsed before I again visited Ecuador, this time with a party of tourists whom I helped to find and identify birds. From Quito we traveled in a chartered bus, over a broad well-paved highway, down to Santo Domingo de los Colorados… On the following day, we continued down to Quindinde, stopping here and there to look for birds… Instead of the narrow, brush-choked trail that we had traversed thirty-four years earlier, the same broad highway led all the way to Quindinde, and beyond. But all those miles of forests that we had seen had vanished and were replaced by great banana plantations, pastures, and rows and rows of African oil palms. Here and there a few of the tall native Pambil palms stood in lonely isolation, bringing to memory the multitudes that had once graced this region. As has happened all over tropical America, including the Costa Rican valley where I write, when the highways come the forest goes, leaving hardly a trace… An oleoduct spanning the Rio Quininde, carrying to the coast petroleum pumped across the high Andes from oilfields in Ecuador’s Oriente, was another achievement of the ‘progress’ that brings wealth to nations at so heavy a price to their flora and fauna. ” – The Emerald Land

I hope that our new president will find a way to halt the deforestation that’s desecrating many areas of this province. Stripping the land only provides temporary ‘wealth,’ yet it alters the natural rhythms and cycles of nature in devastating long-term effects; will mankind ever learn to consider the natural world first, and to adapt and fit in with as little intrusion as possible?

While photographing the ‘wild’ papaya, I pondered “Wouldn’t it be nice if a pretty bird landed to make the photo more interesting?”

Poof! “Wish granted!  You now have two more wishes!”

Yesterday after spending a several-hour outing of watching nature, I returned to the casa with a childlike wonder about seeing so many species – new to me – in surround sound and in-your-face living color. I wondered what those first botanists, naturalists and ornithologists must have thought – and how they felt when they explored the Neotropics and witnessed never-imagined new species.

This week’s VIP – Is this a Brown Wood Rail?

An hour later, those mystical alignments of the universe placed an answer in my hands. Perhaps Life had been preparing my own ‘long evolution’ for that very moment – for there in Skutch’s book was a narrative about seeing a brightly-colored finch-sized bird. He stated,

“…How I wondered what they could be be, to what family they belonged! When a new bird flies into the field of vision of an ardent bird watcher, he feels much as the astronomer does when a new planet swims into his ken – and especially so when the strange bird is s brilliantly colored, so strikingy different from any that he has seen before. .. months passed before I learned that this finch is the Red-capped Cardinal.” Through Peruvian Amazonia by Gunboat

Skutch’s eloquently-written epilogue, ” The Appreciative Mind,” asks:
“How often, in our moments of supreme delight, when life is at its fullest and best and petty cares forgotten, do we pause to examine the sources of our joy?” –

“… Then I reflected how rare, in the life of an individual and even in that of a community, are moments such as I then experienced, when one responds somewhat adequately, with joyous gratitude, to what nature has been so long preparing for our enjoyment, and preparing us to enjoy. Throughout the valley, men were bending over their machetes, preparing land for sowing, backs rather than eyes turned toward this delightfully blue sky; women were patting out tortillas in smoky kitchens. How many spared a moment to contemplate earth’s beauty this fair morning? Farther off, millions of people were toiling in noisy factories, selling things in stuffy shops, feverishly hurrying hither and thither in quest of wealth, laying in pain in hospital beds, drilling for war. Among thousands of people, it seems that only a few, here and there, are at any time so situated, and so endowed by nature, that they can respond to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos with the keen appreciation that it merits.” –

“For miles around, forests as beautiful as that in which I stood had been felled and burnt to make farms. Only because a naturalist from far away had admired and bought this small tract did it still stand. And even with ownership, he could not give it adequate protection; about me on the ground lay rotting trunks of stately palms – ancient growths that thieves had felled for the pound or two of edible tissue at the tender growing point of each one… Despite their fragility, the rare moments when we respond with fullest feeling to nature’s glory, when we are glad to be alive and grateful for the privilege of living on so favored a planet, are infinitely precious. Things as great as the sun and as small as a butterfly; as ancient as earth and as young as the morning; as solid as the mighty soaring trunk and as fragile as a flower; as enduring as the mossy gray rock and as fleeting as a bird’s song – all are, so to speak, brought to a focus in the appreciative mind.” The Appreciative Mind

This is being posted from the municipality office at the town of Ayacucho!  They were nice and let me use their internet to send an ‘All’s Well’ note to the world.  I suspect they would like to close and go home!   Perdon in advance for all mistakes!

I look forward to hearing how many saw the eclipse, and if so, was it a great experience?  Did the birds sing or the chickens go to roost?

See you online in 30 or so hours!