“A man needs a little madness, or else… he never dares cut the rope and be free.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis
(Poza Honda Ecuador) “…As I write while noting the sweet and varied sounds and calls of nature, a not-so-soothing instrument asserts its caustic voice. Incongruent with the morning’s rhythms, a chainsaw slices through the natural harmonies. Compared to the never-ending sounds of the city, the distant chainsaw seems minor and insignificant, yet it grates on my psyche much deeper than the urban distractions…” from: Many Birds at a Time – Sept 2019 – Brunetti
Manabi Province, Ecuador – Approaching quietly on his motorcycle, the guard for the dam (reservoir Poza Honda) stopped and turned off the engine. I expected Antonio to politely ask me to park elsewhere, which I usually do – but had not on that late afternoon. On my way back to the city, I stopped to video the 40 or 50 Chestnut-collared Swallows careening in and out of nests beneath the spillway bridge. Turning off the camera, I stood and smiled. His words took me by surprise and touched me greatly.
With sensitivity and respect, Antonio asked, “Why did you leave? Where did you move?” (I’d been basically absent for four months after living there for two years.)
With equal respect, I asked if he had time for a ten-minute answer, and if he was serious as to ‘why.‘
“Si,” the clear-eyed Antonio replied.
I said that two years ago the sound of the chain saws was rare, but for the past year it seemed to be almost daily – and most days the sound came from two or three different locations. He nodded and agreed. The rate of deforestation had increased. I mentioned the cutting and run-away fire way too close to my residence (2018) – and he distinctly remembered that fire.
I said that some days the sound of the saws made me angry; other days it made me profoundly sad and sometimes it was like a blow to the stomach, and at those times I cried. “It’s a protected forest, yet no one speaks up – and the authorities don’t enforce the law. It’s as if the logging is invisible, including when the loaded trucks drive past the guards, though the gates and out of the protected forest.” I mentioned the times when logs were stacked near the road, yet it wasn’t until dark when the trucks arrived to transport the material out of the area. I asked if it was legal to cut near the water, and we discussed a clear-cut area that increases each year. Higher toward the southern ridge, a new visual wound brands an area near the dam.
Three weeks later a new scar:
Antonio, as with all of the locals, observes the ongoing clearing; it’s part of a lifestyle the farming and ranching community has always known. Does having more knowledge of current events, of climate change, of pesticide dangers, of vanishing species, of the melting glaciers — does it make it more simple or more complicated when trying to live in harmony with these beautiful people? Our conversation resumed at an easy pace, and we discussed the burning that often follows, leaving strips of parallel scars along the barren hillsides.
“Our planet is sick, and it needs more trees, more canopy – we have to respect the planet. The monkeys need tree bridges – when the area is cleared, the monkeys are forced to leave.” I said that I loved the area, and that I missed everyone – but I also did not want to end up like another Chico Mendes.
Changing the topic, I told him about the just-finished bird census, where ‘Don Jorge,’ Luis and I documented 87 species in one day, and our hopes to share our birding enthusiasm with others in the area. I squinted toward the water’s edge and stated, “Limpkin?” He asked about the cluster of black and white birds near the Limpkin. “Those are stilts,” I said, “ but look -” and I turned on the camera, which pulled in the image of the brown Limpkin. He laughed and said he would never have seen that bird.
We then checked the field guide index and flipped to the correct page. He quickly grasped the map index for each species, and he repeated the word, “Limpkin” with clear enunciation. We turned to the stilts, and he repeated, “Black-necked Stilt” several times. We discussed the Brown Wood Rail and located its range map in the book, and we discussed extinctions and the endangered Gray-backed Hawk photographed a short distance from the dam. He learned that the Osprey prefers fish over chickens and that Laughing Falcon devours snakes.
Antonio, our second Bird Specialist in training, quickly recalled the names of the birds he had just seen. He enjoyed pronouncing the new words, and I easily imagined a small group of locals – all repeating the names – or answering the question ‘Que Ave?” then seeing which person answered first – and giving little prizes to the person who remembered the most names.
Instead of Bingo gatherings, would the locals embrace Birding gatherings? The creative mind finds many ideas for rewarding the participants: the person who asks the most questions, a new ‘star student’ who reports seeing the most birds – or interesting bird behavior — or acknowledge the person who told the most-encouraging story re: “I placed the papaya scraps on a feeder and the Orange-fronted Barbets were there almost instantly! Those birds have never been so close to our house!’
It’s doubtful they would embrace my invented method of detecting hard-to-find birds:
“…Noting the continued absence of many species (birds, butterflies and the oh-so-important bees) I slowed my pace and wondered how to increase my awareness of what might be lurking nearby. Remembering posture lessons from long ago, I imagined – not a book balanced on my head – but a bowl of clear water. ‘Let the water’s surface mirror the sky and the treetops,’ I silently coached myself. Seeing my mischievous smirk, a voyeur might think that I was tripping on experimental drugs. No drugs are needed when one fine-tunes with nature…
…Every so often my mind wandered, but a quick mental glance to the imaginary bowl on my head steered me back on course. A duet of weak chirpings meandered from deep shadows of the nearby under-story. Rufous-headed Chachalacas chanted from the distance. Careful not to swish the water on top of my head, I fine-tuned my attention to the chirpings. Silhouetted against a sunlit spot on the far side of the thicket, one petite bird flitted from ground level to low branches to 8 or so feet high then back again. The camera focused on tangled vines in the foreground, on the sunlit patch in the background, but repeatedly failed to capture the small bird. The baby birds’ grumblings halted; the adult became equally still.
Perhaps they were practicing the same bowl-balancing exercise?
This species has mastered the art of adaptation. What happens, however, when man removes their home of ‘undesirable’ undergrowth?” – Lisa Brunetti – from “MANY Birds at a Time”
………………..(Warning – this is a long post!)
Returning a month later and hoping to identify the mystery bird, I spent more time in that specific stretch of road. The birds were exceptionally nervous, as the chain saws assaulted the balsas along the nearby stream. One mystery bird paused long enough for a few photos and video. Reviewing reference material with the images later that day, I was pleased to discover a new VIP bird for the day: Pacific Royal Flycatcher!
Pacific Royal Flycatcher – Onychorhynchus occidentalis ( restricted to southwestern Ecuador and adjacent Peru)
From Cornell: ” Royal Flycatcher exhibits notable geographic variation across this range, and so some authors recognize as many as four species of royal flycatcher…” ‘…Two of these populations, occidentalis and swainsoni, are potentially at risk of extinction… “
The late-December all-day bird census allowed a ‘timeout’ return to Poza Honda and hopefully see this bird again. Starting around 6:30 in the morning, I was pleased to hear – and see – the Brown Wood Rails. Beyond the stream I approached the ‘Pacific Royal Flycatcher’ area, yet viewed a slightly-altered landscape. Exactly where I practiced the bowl-balancing exercise, someone had
cut away scalped the thick growth and felled the older hardwood trees. It’s a small area, just big enough to build a 2-car garage, but what are the odds that they would select another area prized by yours truly? Remnants of the discarded chunks remained on the roadside, and my mood darkened as I resumed the route in search of my birding companions.
The next VIP sighting was while visiting with Luis and Jorge at the next point. Two Chestnut-headed Oropendolas ‘buzzed’ us, and for the next three hours we enjoyed playing tag with a larger flock. The post,‘Shhhh, Bird Specialists in Training’ covers the Oropendola story.
“…I often I realize that I am smiling as I meander to the water’s edge, and I smile as I watch the Limpkins and the Night Herons and the Anis and the Caciques. I smile as I balance the bowl of imaginary water on my head while navigating Puffbird Curve, and I definitely smile when the Brown Wood Rail bolts after the butterfly. My entire body smiles because my soul is happy and at peace. Observing nature provides the secret ingredient…” Many Birds at a Time/Brunetti
The Chestnut-headed Oropendola checklist received the ‘more-information’ attention from Scott Olmstead, one of eBird’s species moderator for Ecuador. He was very helpful and ‘user friendly’ for helping to clarify details. He noted my observations from two years ago, but there are no other reports of oropendolas in this area of Manabi.
This past weekend, when many were preparing to watch the Super Bowl, I returned to Poza Honda to update the status of the nesting oropendolas. “Don’t bother to turn on the refrigerator,” I had warned Jorge/Jurg – the owner, “I’ll be there for watching the birds and will bring ‘camping’ rations.” With fresh fruits, vegetables, dried lentils and quinoa, I looked forward to two days of birding.
Easily merging with the slower-paced rhythms of nature, I treasured hearing the Pale-browed Tinamou’s clear whistle, which was answered by a second one in the distance. Limpkins squawked from the water’s edge, and Groove-billed Anis squeak-squeaked as they foraged near the house. Several groups of chachalacas exchanged retorts for most of the morning. A lone monkey added its faraway howl, and I recalled hearing the monkeys on my first morning there almost three years ago and realizing, “Monkeys? There are monkeys here? I’m in trouble – I may never leave.”
As if conspiring with other VIP species, at least 30 oropendolas flew overhead and landed in the dense canopy between the houses and the reservoir. I had planned to drive to view the nesting oropendolas, but they provided a surprise ‘Welcome back’ greeting! How could I leave to check on nests when the birds were right in front of me?!
The next morning about fifteen were back and provided easy observation of a strange sadistic behavior. Focused on Cecroprias growing in a ‘wild’ area of coffee, they darted high and low to feed on the catkins, even though the guardian ants inflicted obvious pain. The birds fidgeted and darted so rapidly that most all of the photos were out of focus. They provided half an hour of amusing entertainment!
The viewing session ended with a very-close opportunity for better photos. Following Otto’s (Otto Munchow) long-ago advice on one of his posts about photography, I refrained from reviewing the images and continued to watch the subject. Had I been looking down and not up, I might have missed a second VIP species feeding on the same catkins. Thank you Chestnut-headed Oropendolas! Thank you Orange-fronted Barbets and Thank you Otto!
Approaching noon, I drove to the village of 10 de Agosto to check the four nests. I hoped to see adult birds taking food to the nests for the newest generation. I wondered if any of the nests had been destroyed by nest-plundering ‘other’ species. Parking at the muddy intersection with a dirt road, I gaped at ‘Oropendola Hill’ and smiled. More nests! How many more? Before I could start counting, I spoke to the locals standing near the corner and asked permission to watch the birds.
Fifteen oropendola nests and two other ‘mystery’ nests! (One was most likely a Band-backed Wren nest.) Several more people walked by – and like me they were more interested in bird trivia than Super Bowl trivia! They all wanted to know why I was there and what I was looking at. “These birds are special; they normally do not live in this area of Manabi,” I pointed to the nests. “Si,” one lovely lady replied, “they’re from the Oriente/eastern side of the country..”
Her reply surprised and delighted me! I wondered if Jariel – our first Birding Apprentice – had told his neighbors about our December visit. She said that she lived ‘arrrrrriba’ and invited me to visit her any time. Her cousin ambled along on a burro and asked for a photo with his ‘Prima.’ (The photos were lousy.) He said that he was solo and invited me for conversations as well! She disappeared over the hill and up the muddy road, while he continued his journey along the main road.
Focused on the loud and raucous wrens, I was trying to confirm ‘Band Backed’ or ‘Fasciated Wrens’ in the same tree that held the oropendola nests. Almost 90 percent of the time at Poza Honda – or even more – it’s the Band Backed Wren, which is another species living out of its range. It’s replaced by Fasciated in the Poza Honda area, but no one informed the Band-backed Wrens! Nonetheless, both species have almost identical chatterings of perpetual quarrels. I had just started a video to record the audio when a sweet young voice stated, ‘Hola…’
My oh my! A beautiful young girl and her younger brother stood a few feet away. Their sweetness was obvious, and I instantly shut off the camera and gave the children my complete attention. She asked what I was looking at, and I mentioned the oropendolas.
“Yes,” she stated in a very matter-of-fact voice,‘they live in the Oriente.’
As if she understood my obvious confusion – of how such a young girl in this remote village could know about the birds on the Amazon side of the country – she added, “My family lived there, and I saw those birds. My father worked in a restaurant for tourists.”
“Tourism para aves?” I asked.
“Si,” she smiled, “but now we live here…”
I asked about her parents, and she pointed to their house. I asked her if she would ask them if I could meet them – in five or ten minutes.
She and her brother returned to their house, and about ten minutes later she returned – with a cousin – and a small cat! She explained that their father was elsewhere – further down the road. (Preparing to watch the Super Bowl? – of course not!)
Several more serene ladies walked past, and one returned with a wheelbarrow! News regarding Jariel (the first birding apprentice) was that he was working in Guayaquil (as planned) and would most likely be home mid month – perfect timing for the Backyard Bird Count.
As I finished photographing the birds and prepared to leave, I realized that Life had presented a village of many more apprentices.
I will return for the Backyard Bird Count weekend February 14 – 17, and will most likely select the 15th as the most-intense day of birding. If anyone is interested in a weekend of birding and ‘camping’ (ha! the refrigerator will be on, the \Casa Poza Honda’ rooms are clean and the hot water endless!) – I would welcome some partners in birding! (If it should rain, we can have drawing lessons/classes while waiting on the skies to clear!)
Casa Poza Honda (Two houses) – Room Rate: $35.00 single occupancy; 15.00 for a second person Shared kitchen – or with notice, the neighbors can prepare the local specialties.
If interested, contact the owner – Don Jorge/Jurg Arnet: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone (Ecuador) 0994018889 Thanks for hanging in here til the end! Lisa