Early birds, serendipitous worms

Mindo is a small town near Quito which is famous for bird-watching; and other more energetic activities like mountain-biking, tubing in the rivers, hiking in the surrounding cloud forests, etc. I don’t know much about birds, but it seemed like a good idea to see some colorful birds, since we were in this part of Ecuador anyway.  Waking up at 6 AM in the morning is not really a hardship for me anymore. Joe was a bit lukewarm about the idea, but what the hey, where’s he going to go, Detroit? (Mountain biking and tubing in rivers: you can do that in lots of other places if you miss out on them in Mindo. Besides, we’re getting old . . .)

Our hostel (Caskaffesu, which was run by really nice folks: Susan and Luis), didn’t have any recommendations for a guide (I think there were some issues in the past), so we just randomly walked into a tour agency on the main street, and asked them to recommend a guide. It costs $45 for about 3 hours for a Spanish-speaking guide, (usually 6 AM to 9ish), and $60 for English-speaking guide.  Santos, whom we ended up with, actually spoke good ‘birding’ English, i.e. “look at the clearing on that branch,” “red”, “nest”, “egret”, etc.  He also had binoculars to loan us.

Forty-five dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is in Ecuador. But you’re paying for a human expertise honed over time: which is, how to spot where the birds are, and even more impressively, identify what they are at 30 yards away, backlit by the slowly rising sun. “There’s a social flycatcher,” he’d point out to us: all I would see was ‘a small blob of bird’. “Oh, that’s a bubble-gum chewing wren,” and all I could see was a leaf through my binoculars. (I was actually getting a little motion-sickness when I had to adjust between looking with and without the binoculars.

Rufous Momot . . . I think

Rufous Momot . . . I think

Santos also had a field guide with color drawings in Spanish and English which he’d pull out of his pocket and flip to the page to show us, which was very helpful. (I wondered, but decided against the tackiness in asking him if there were also chickens shown in the field guide, since we’d also seen a great variety of them around.)  Actually, we wouldn’t even know any better if he had told us a bird was a bubble-gum chewing wren instead of a sparrow. The only thing we managed to identify on our own was a squirrel. It was in a tree, but it didn’t fly. All of our expertise in software engineering and transportation planning doesn’t count for jack sh_t in the natural world.

Many of the males and females look quite different in the avian realm, not just peacocks. The most colorful birds we saw were toucans, rufous momots, blue-, green- and yellow-colored birds, which names have escaped me. We also saw a hawk, vultures and egrets.  It was great that Joe had a telephoto lens; he got some good shots.

I guess it’s rather silly that we mainly wanted to see colorful birds; after all I’m sure there are rare and unique birds that are in browns, blacks and greys. But since we don’t know anything about birds, we’re like kids drawn to the eye-candy appeal of bright, garish colors. Also, back home in California, the most common birds are in browns, blacks and grays, except for the blue jays. Here, the flycatcher is a very common bird, and is mostly brown/black, but with a bright yellow chest.  So it looks quite exotic to us.

Bubble-gum chewing wren, I'm sure this is NOT!

Bubble-gum chewing wren, I’m sure this is NOT!

There are also lots of hummingbirds in this part of the world, which we’ve seen quite often in cultivated gardens that are full of flowers (and bird feeders.)

It is very convenient to go birdwatching in Mindo: we simply walked along the main road (which was only paved in Mindo proper, and then merely graded after that) and looked past the barbed wire fences demarcating private property on either side of the road.  We didn’t have to drive to a park and hike on a trail. The key is to go early in the morning, that’s when most birds and animals in the wild are most active.

This is also when I finally appreciated dead trees which are still standing.  Because the branches are bared of leaves, they make it easier for birds to perch there and keep an eye on things. It also made it easier for humans to spot them, unblocked by foliage.

Santos was also excited to spot a baby rufus momot in a tree hole (apparently a rare occurrence), and took a photo on his phone. I wish my Spanish was good enough to ask him how long he’d been birding and guiding, because I’m sure it takes a long time to learn all these things. Is this is full time job, or does he have a day job as well?

There were two  Chinese-American women from LA who checked into the hostel as we were enjoying our post-bird-watching breakfast. We ended up going hiking and then touring a small chocolate factory with them for the rest of the day. They asked us about our bird-watching excursion that evening. “It was pretty good,” we told them enthusiastically, explained how it worked and gave them Santos’ cell phone number. One of them spoke some Spanish, so it would be alright.

The rooms in Caskaffesu have screens, as well as glass, but no one really closes the glass windows, for circulation. So you can pretty much hear everything going on.  I wasn’t surprised the next morning I heard the two women leave their room and go down the stairs before the sun was up, about 24 hours after we had done the same exact thing ourselves. I was just glad that I got to sleep in that morning, until 7 AM.

They do not live on a diet of froot loops . . .

They do not live on a diet of froot loops . . .

About half an hour later, I heard Susan and the two women talking, and then some laughter. It seemed a bit odd that the two women hadn’t left yet, as it was getting much lighter.

When we went down to breakfast later, Susan told us that us that she’d gotten up early  by coincidence to deal with a delivery to Quito at 6:30 AM, and the two women told her they had been waiting for the guide since 6 AM.

Had they called him the night before?

No. A dawning ‘Ah . . .  (laughter)’

Susan offered to call him right away. “Sure, I can come right now,” said Santos (He lived a 5-minute walk away.)

“You’d think that for an activity that starts at 6 AM, you’d call and make arrangements the night before,” said Susan surprised and amusedly. I guess the two women thought he would materialize deus ex machina-like at the right time and place to take them bird-watching . . .?

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One thought on “Early birds, serendipitous worms

  1. I took an ornithology class when I was at UM. Yes we had to get up early in the morning. But I was in my early 20’s then. We also did a field trip in April in MN. Unfortunately the birds of the upper Midwest was not nearly as colorful as the ones you saw.

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