Monday, November 24, 2014

When you go looking for parrot photos, the birds don't always co-operate

As we approached the landing that would allow us to penetrate the jungle shore of the Rio Napo, two parrots winged their way overhead, en route to the same clay lick where we were headed, the same spot where we could hear hundreds of other squawking parrots congregating as part of their morning
Dawn along the Rio Shiripuno.
We heard parrots - we just couldn't see them.

I hoped this journey would help me realize an ambition I’d failed to realize the previous week, when I’d paddled down the Rio Shiripuno through Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.

As stated elsewhere in this space, I have two main passions in my life: paddling and parrots. I live with two African grey parrots, and I have spent many summers canoeing or kayaking since I dipped my first paddle into a pond at a summer youth camp, 40 years ago.

I took this trip to combine the two of them: I’d be able to paddle a section of a remote river in the wild Amazon rainforest to see – and hopefully photograph – parrots in their natural habitat.

The paddling trip covered a section of the river that cut through the territory of the Huaorani, one of the last indigenous Amazon tribes to encounter western civilization. Their first contact came with North American missionaries in 1956.

I spent five days kayaking on the river, traveling with guides from EcoAdventour, a local outfit that worked with U.S.-based Adventure Life  as well as the Huaorani chief, Moi. Two hours onto the river, we saw some macaws fly overhead, so my hopes were high that we would see plenty of parrots – and take plenty of photos.

We saw numerous other wild birds during our river trip, including military macaws, blue-headed parrots, and Amazons. We also saw various other species of birds: toucans perched overhead in treetops; kingfishers zipping up and down the river; a pair of nightjars in their nest, right near our second night’s campsite, herons at various points along the river; and a solitary harpy eagle sitting high above the river in the crown of a tree.

However, paddling a kayak - even a touring kayak on a relatively placid river - and trying to get in position to take good photos of birds proved to be mutually exclusive activities most of the time, so I did not capture any good bird shots, and had very few good “parrot photo ops” during the expedition.


Following the river trip, I’d spent a day exploring the cloud forest of the country’s transitional zone between the high Andes and the lowland jungle. Cloud forest vegetation is sparser, and more sturdy than lush, but still much thicker than what we would see at a similar elevation in Canada

This transitional zone is home to numerous bird species, including the Andean cock of the rock, many hummingbird species, and in some areas, parrots.

However, I was still not able to get close enough to take any pictures of parrots on my trip through the cloud forest. A slight change in our travel plans arose, resulting in an opportunity to go back into the rainforest and visit a parrot lick. Yeah, I jumped at it.

A half-hour plane trip, two-hour bus ride and three-hour river excursion via motorized dugout canoe brought us to a jungle trail on Ecuador’s Rio Napo. A 15-minute hike followed by a half-hour paddle in a small dugout canoe across the jungle lake Laguna Garzacocha (literally, “Heron Lake” in the native Quechua language) landed us at La Selva Jungle Lodge, located on a bluff overlooking the lake.

We spent that evening exploring the area around the lodge during a night hike through the jungle. We spotted a small caiman (a cousin to the crocodile), and a nine-banded armadillo. But, I was here to see (and photograph) parrots. Take me to the birds!

This caiman was about three feet long.
Some grow up to 12 feet.
The next day came early enough, with a 5 a.m. wake-up call. I traveled with my own personal guide, Omar, paddling and hiking back to the Rio Napo, then headed upriver by motorized dugout for 15 minutes to the parrot lick. As I walked the short path between the river and the lick, the sound of hundreds of parrots squawking grew louder, as my excitement mounted.

I quickly reached the blind and after setting up quickly, I sat and watched them flit around through the treetops, squawking and whistling, interacting with other birds.

Omar identified four parrot species: Mealy amazons (Amazona farinosa), yellow-crowned amazons (A. ochrocephala), blue-headed parrots (Pionus menstruus) and dusky-headed parakeets (Aratinga weddellii).

I watched a pair groom each other on a branch; on another tree, one parrot chased a second one away from what was obviously, a favored perch; elsewhere, a lone parrot groomed himself, then shook his tail, reminding me of my own companion African grey parrots’ behavior back home.

Two hours later, the flock winged away to new adventures, leaving the trees empty and silent. The birds never did land on the lick, so I still did not have the good close-up shots of wild parrots I desired.

As we headed back to the lodge, a pair of macaws glided high overhead, teasingly out of camera range, and the thought struck me that perhaps the enjoyment of simply watching wild parrots interact in their natural environment was enough, perhaps the pictures did not seem to matter so much … .

Besides, since I didn’t get the shots I wanted, I have a good excuse to go back ….

This is what a busy parrot lick looks like - not my experience at Yasuni.

 (This trip, taken a few years ago, was the first time I combined parrots with paddling - in some ways, the inspiration for this blog's title. Different versions of this adventure have appeared previously in different magazines, including the Georgia Straight and Parrots magazine.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Where tired bats hang their hats, unusual beauty awaits you

With the switch back to standard time and the forward march into a gray and drizzly November, it seems like fall is already gone - or close to it - and winter stares us in the face.

Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that I was enjoying the warm weather of the autumnal equinox weekend? Oops...a check of the calendar tells me it was actually closer to two months ago.

At the time and in the place I spent two days visiting - northeastern Alabama - the leaves had not even started to turn colour, yet. 

To the batcave!
No matter. I spent a good portion of the first day in a place where no leaves could be seen.

I went down into the bowels of the earth, at Cathedral Cavern State Park.

And as we followed our guide into the huge maw of the cave entrance (you can only enter as part of a guided tour), I completely forgot to say, "To the Batcave, Robin!"

That's okay. Adam West and Burt Ward probably would have been intimidated going into this cave. And I don't recall Christian Bale ever repeating that three-word phrase.

The cave is huge.

And it's full of all kinds of chambers, an underground river running far below the walkway, indications of previous use by both Native Americans and white settlers - and a plethora of cool rock formations. Stalactites. Stalagmites. Waterfalls flowing down rock faces. Rocks that look like an evil monkey head - or Marlon Brando's head in the movie Apocalypse, Now!

Wandering along the parks-built (very safe) pathway through the cavern reminded me of images I'd seen in the original album jacket of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth

The variety was endless. And every time you'd look back at a formation you'd seen a minute ago, it seemed to minute it would remind you of the inside of some horrible demonic monster's maw - the next, some alien planet's landscape. But as grotesque and odd as they may look, there are also incredibly, uniquely beautiful.

Your call: evil monkey skull -
or Marlon Brando head?
I certainly understood why the park's haunted cave tours are so popular in late October.

While walking the mile or so back into the cave, we could see where a former owner of the cave, Jay Gurley had built paths along ledges to access the cave. He owned it and ran it as a tourist attraction from 1959 until 1974. The state eventually bought it in 1987 and turned into a safer natural wonder for visitors to enjoy by redoing the man-made infrastructure.

We also spotted a cave salamander, although he was so tiny, it was difficult to get a good shot of him in less-than-ideal light conditions.

Shortly after that, my ears picked up a squeaking sound up toward the ceiling high above us - and sure enough, there was a bat. (No robin, though).

I could have wandered around looking at the formations all day, looking for more bats (we spotted a few more on our way back to the entrance), but other attractions beckoned. 

At least, that's our has nothing to with the symbol featuring a certain flying quadruped of the order Chiroptera that blazed across the sky as we emerged from the cave...

A brief view of the cavern and its formations.

For more cave photos, visit my Facebook album, "Caverns, Cascades and Canyons"