After 11 days in the Galápagos [see previous story], we arrived back in Quito to head to a very different sort of paradise - the Bella Vista Cloud Forest. This high-altitude region of Ecuador is considered one of the best birding spots in the world. And conveniently, with travel to the Galápagos leaving from Quito it's easy to tack on a side trip.
This region was in danger of having forest converted into farms, but may farmers have now found there is more money to be had from tourism. Although tourism has huge environmental impacts, in this case, it is also having a positive effect of saving this precious and unique ecosystem.
The biggest attraction is of course the hummingbirds! Such an incredible variety from tiny booted rackettails with their little ugg boots to the brilliants with their iridescent colours. And despite being tiny, each had huge ferocious attitude! As we climbed in altitude, the species of hummingbirds changed, each evolved and adapted to that specific height. They were also quite tricky to photograph in the dappled forest, as they zipped around from flower to flower, stretching my novice photography skills.
The area is also famous for birds from the toucan family, including the giant bumble-bee tummied pale-mandibled araçari and paint-box coloured plate-billed mountain toucan. My favourite bird from the entire trip though was the diminutive crimson-rumped toucanet who we found bathing in a bromeliad (see photo-art at top of this story). It is so fascinating to see these improbably birds eat as they have to toss the food up with their giant bills and hopefully catch it in the back of their throats.
We're not twitchers but we did keep count of the number of species we saw in the four days we spent exploring - an incredible 127 (confirmed by our knowledgeable guide)! I much prefer spending extended time with just one species, getting to know them intimately, but on a whistle-stop trip like this, it's just not possible. And we weren't even trying to knock off as many as possible, it's just that there are that many different birds to see! It's really quite overwhelming, which is why here I decided to post about just the hummingbirds and toucans.
Like I did for the Galápagos leg of the trip, I'd like to add some notes about travelling with a chronic illness. I was very anxious before the trip about the effects of altitude and potential altitude sickness. Alongside anxiety about seasickness, I'm surprised Lynn ever convinced me to go! So before the trip, we went through two rounds of "altitude training". This involves breathing a high-nitrogen mix of air through a mask for about an hour a day for three weeks. You can hire a system to do at home or there is a clinic downtown. Breathing this mix helps create new red blood cells which can then carry more oxygen and give a bit more energy. The effects last around 3 weeks or so. Other than huffing and puffing a bit more and having some trouble sleeping, we didn't have any altitude-related issues, so I'm glad we went to the effort.
What I did notice though was "land sickness". For about a week after getting off the boat after 11 days at sea, I felt the world moving as if I was still onboard. It was quite unexpected, but apparently it is a thing, and sometimes people never recover. Fortunately it wore off!
I was shooting with the Panasonic GX7 and 20mm, 100-300mm, and 35-100mm lenses, all bought especially for this trip and I loved how lightweight it all was. I was still learning how to use the gear, so a lot of the photos are sub-par. I'd love to return with my latest kit and better knowledge of how to get the best out of shooting in dappled forests (even with good gear, it's hard).
Do you have a bucket-list birding destination for when we can travel again?
Bathtime in Bella Vista (crimson-rumped toucanet)
A splish and a splash as these tiny toucanets pop in and out of the cloud-forest bromeliads, drinking and bathing. Habitat for toucanets and many other bird species in Ecuador is being saved and restored as farmers change their land use from farming and hunting to eco-tourism, such as at Angel Paz's reserve in Mindo.
Exhibited in: "Birds on a Wire" solo exhibition (April, 2018). Published in: Artists Down Under magazine (Feb, 2018).
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to the American Bird Conservancy to support their conservation efforts in Ecuador.
Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
crimson-rumped toucanet, Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
With no big bucket-list travel plans on the horizon, I thought I might spelunk my archives and relive some old adventures. Here's hoping we all get to explore further fields again some day! This story is inspired by this week's Art of Birding photo challenge, which is "one from the archives." It's all about the time we visited the Galápagos Islands - a huge, wonderful and scary adventure we undertook in 2014. I'd not travelled for years and never intrepidly - this was well out of my comfort zone! It took much arm-twisting and encouragement from the lovely Lynn. But I'm so glad I took the plunge, not least of all because it sparked a love of wildlife photography. Because it was a photography trip, that was the impetus to buy my first decent camera (ironically most people on the trip were not photographers). It was a pivotal trip in my first steps towards becoming an artist, although I didn't know it at the time. Thanks Lynn and thanks Tui for a trip of a lifetime!
Lynn also twisted the arms of other Zealandia-associated people, making for a lovely, friendly group of people to travel with, along with a few brave souls from other parts of the world who found themselves surrounded by kiwi bird-nerds. Leaving from Ecuador, we flew to the islands and set sail on a little boat for an 11 day cruise. We each chose a “spirit animal” that we most wanted to see. I chose the Blue-footed Booby – a most ridiculous and improbable bird with bright blue feet and intricate courtship rituals, which involves showing off said feet and offering sticks to their beloved.
We learned so much from the amazing Tui de Roy - the wildlife photographer leading the tour - and a Galápagos native. My biggest take-home was to get on-level with my critter and not take “roadkill” shots looking down on them. That sometimes involves getting down in the sand and dirt, but we were also fortunate to get great angles on albatross that were launching themselves off a cliff face.
Landings on the islands are strictly controlled and timed. Because we were a photography tour, we got the early morning and late afternoon slots, which made for fabulous light (though some very early starts!).
The hardest outing, but the most rewarding, was getting out to the waved albatross colony, which involved walking a couple of km over pebbly rocks - exhausting! The albatross are amazing, and so beautiful with their delicate patterning and big eyes. We got to see their courtship rituals where they mimic each other in a choreographed dance, usually with a competitor looking on. My favourite shot from the entire trip is the one above.
I was blown away to see flamingos up close, peacefully feeding in the shallows. Such stunning birds. They're not endemic to the islands, but it was the first time I'd ever seen one.
Getting up close was a theme of the trip. Most of the birds evolved without seeing humans as a threat. We were able to walk through their breeding colonies and if we kept quietly to ourselves, they simply didn't give a shit that we were there. There was no need for a super long lens or tripod on this trip! Most of these photos were taken with a 35-100mm or 100-300mm zoom (4/3rds camera).
The Galápagos are filled with improbable critters, and the stories of their evolution are fascinating. Possibly the most improbable though is the Galápagos penguin - yes a penguin - found in the tropics at the equator! Curiously, the waters around the islands are cold due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold water up from southern Chile. This photo is a wee bit blurry because the zodiac was pitching up and down.
Another improbable bird was the short-eared owl that lives in cavities out on the volcanic flats - this was Lynn's spirit bird. We only spotted one once it started flapping its wings frantically.
It's always problematic to take long-haul travel to visit rare and endangered birds, but the Galápagos can only afford to look after these precious ecosystems with the money they get from tourism. It's a delicate balance with no easy answers. If you do get the opportunity to go, do go - there's nothing else like it on earth. But do your research first and choose your tour operator carefully to ensure they put the welfare of the critters first (Lynn did just this, and chose brilliantly!)
Next story, I'll show you some amazing birds from the side-trip we took to the Bella Vista Cloud Forest in Ecuador - just as amazing and totally different!
A P.S. about pottying and intrepid travelling...
One thing tour operators are often bad at is telling you how much fitness is needed for a trip and practical things like how long the walks are and how often you'll get a potty break - information I need before committing to a trip. People who have chronic illnesses can manage quite intrepid travelling if fully informed and well prepared. Fortunately the folk at Galapagos Travel were super helpful and allayed all my concerns.
If you're thinking of touring the Galápagos, know there are no loos on most of the islands, so you need to hold on for a couple of hours (most outings were for no longer than that). Most of the islands are covered in scrubby bush, so there's no ducking behind a tree, and even if you don't mind hanging it all out, it's discouraged. I managed by giving up coffee (a diuretic) before the trip, and only having a proper drink once we returned from the morning's outing. I only took judicious sips of water while out walking, just enough to avoid dehydration. I also had an emergency pee/poo/puke bag filled with absorbant crystals that could be used for emergencies, but thankfully never had to use it (pick them up online or from a travel/outdoors store for the peace-of-mind if nothing else).
Typically there were three things to do each day: a morning excursion, an afternoon snorkel, and a late afternoon/evening excursion. Some of the excursions were just cruising in the zodiacs and some involved getting out and walking. I usually chose just two of the three events a day to manage my energy levels and stayed on the boat otherwise. I didn't miss out on any show-stopper outings, and cleverly avoided climbing the volcano in the mist to not get a view and not get covered in mud 😂. I was converted to small boat cruises as a way to travel - you only unpack the once, and it's easier to skip an outing because you know you're not going to be left behind!
Happy to answer any questions you may have about travelling in the Galápagos in the comments below...
Last weekend, Linton and I finally went venturing up to Whanganui to visit the fenced sanctuary at Bushy Park - yes a busman's holiday! We stayed at the old homestead and walked all the trails, admiring the incredible forest with ancient rimu and rata, dripping with lichens and epiphytes. Although the Zealandia bush (our regular haunt) is filling in, it's got centuries to go to look like Bushy Park.
And of course the birdlife was amazing too, with baby birds abounding. The toutouwai were everywhere, and usually too close to focus on with the big lens. The korimako kids were begging incessantly while gorging on muhlenbekia berries. And the highlight was seeing a wee ruru trying to snooze on the side of the track, despite the protestations from the tīeke and hihi.
We were also fascinated to see flocks of cockatoos and eastern rosellas (perhaps attracted by the nearby walnut farm!), making us feel that perhaps we had crossed the ditch and were having a long-overdue Aussie adventure with Sydney-based Aunty Helen.
And the flocks of kererū - I lost count at 30! The abiding sound of the bush was the womp-womp-womp of those big wings crashing around through the bush.
We would have spent more time exploring the park and Whanganui itself, but Level 2 came down unexpectedly so we decided to head home early, consoling ourselves with an evil steak and cheese pie in Foxton while charging the car.
Where do you recommend we head on our next outing? There's so much of New Zealand we have yet to explore.
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Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
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