SHHHH! Bird Specialists in Training! (Part One)
(Poza Honda Reservoir – Manabi Province, Ecuador) Just past ten in the morning, our birding party of three peered beyond the rustic bamboo corral in hopes of identifying the raucous oropendolas that had been playing hide and seek with us for the past two hours. Luis Saltos – bird guide from Chone and Mindo – and I were guests of “Don Jorge” Arnet, owner of a lovingly-tended tract of land at Poza Honda. (Jorge also owns the house that I rented for the past two years before I moved to Portoviejo.) The three of us were conducting an all-day census of bird species in the area with hopes of the area being approved for Audubon’s 2020 Christmas Count. We had been birding since 6 A.M. in intermittent drizzle.
A few hours earlier that morning, two birds buzzed us, and we exclaimed, “What was THAT?” as I snapped two out-of-focus images of the rapidly-vanishing birds. “Oropendola?” I looked at Luis for confirmation. “That whooshing sound?”
We consulted several books and hoped to see those birds again. The (McMullan/Navarrete) Fieldbook for the Birds of Ecuador places all species of oropendolas in other areas of the country. This particular elusive group of birds must have taken a holiday vacation to Poza Honda, and we were trying to decide, “Russet-backed or Chestnut-headed.” Two years ago my friend Xiomara and I saw and photographed one Chestnut headed Oropendola, so my bets were on that species. Photos are oh so important in documenting out-of-range species, even if the photo is a bad one.
There were fleeting glimpses of ‘a lot’ half an hour later – then another viewing half an hour later near the bamboo corral. The Oropendolas were out of sight, but my drizzle-baptized camera managed to document one Rufous-headed Chachalaca in the distance, one Tropical Gnatcatcher way up high, and a Long-billed Hermit inspecting flowers along the living fence.
The last thing I expected to see was another human on the seldom-traveled road and staring at the three of us. A tall, lean and well-scrubbed young man, he wore an expression of curiosity as if observing Santa Clause placing last-minute gifts beneath a tree – or gnomes and fairies in another realm. I was not surprised that Jorge recognized him, called him by name and asked about his health. Ah-ha – recovering from recent surgery, his outing was doctor ordered – yet he was comfortable and at peace in his neighborhood environment.
After introductions, Jorge explained our day’s itinerary and our hopes of recording an accurate census of birds of the area. We showed ‘new-friend Jariel’ the field book, discussed several just-seen species, then continued our walk toward his little village. Happy to accompany us, Jariel shared information about birds near his house and pointed to a location where ‘the Caciques have nests.’ “Yellow or Red?” I asked.
“Yellow,” he said. We noted the dangling nests near the main road as we began walking up a steep and seldom-used side road. The drizzle resumed, I decided to retreat and try to locate the Cacique nests. “See you back at the intersection!”
Jariel was right! Yellow-rumped Caciques were in an avocado-loaded tree, as were Scrub Blackbirds, one red-eyed Giant Blackbird and a jackpot of OROPENDOLAS! Four nests dangled from open branches of a nearby tree, and the oropendolas ferried across the airspace for the next half hour!
The oropendolas and Caciques share the same yellow-against-dark coloration on their tails, and the former were in perpetual motion! From the tree to the nests, around, inside, out, then soaring to out-of-sight destinations and returning minutes later – how does one know how many birds are constructing the nests?
The most-rewarding sight, however, was seeing our ‘First Apprentice/Specialist in Training’ when he returned with my friends! He raised the binoculars, on loan from Luis, and focused on the Oropendola nests. Documenting and counting the birds was an important event, but the true beauty of the day was witnessing an unexpected candle being lit in Jariel’s new world of Aves.
Just before departing, we collectively admired a dozen or more Pale Mandibled Aracaris that paused for refreshments in another avocado tree.
True to the theme of the just-released documentary about the Galapagos, there is Hope for the Future. At Poza Honda, it’s one bird at a time and one apprentice at a time.