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Bird Count Fridays

March 6, 2012

Andean cock-of-the-rock


Patterns of rainforest life tend to exist independently of human timekeeping, and for the most part we follow a schedule based on weather and daylight rather than calendars or watches.  We wake up when the birds start calling– sometimes, a more insistent flycatcher (we’ve yet to identify the species, since when we see it it is always backlit and we are always half-awake) will perch on the bedroom window and tap a quick reveille.  We go to bed when the candle burns out.  At dusk we check the rain gauge.  In good weather we work outdoors maintaining trails, buildings, and gardens.  When it rains, we work indoors, watch hummingbirds, and pass the downtime with reading, baking, Spanish card games, or music (between ukulele, harmonica, and French horn, we have the makings of a very weird jug band).

Nevertheless, human time continues to pass, and we’ve made a few concessions to the weekly patterns of non-rainforest life.  Our week orbits elliptically around two foci: Town Tuesdays, when most of the stores are open and there aren’t too many tourists to elbow aside, and Bird Count Fridays.

Bird Count Fridays begin with a 5 a.m. wakeup, followed by a twenty-minute uphill climb to the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek.  We have learned from experience that saying “cock-of-the-rock lek” to most people will get you either a blank stare or a snicker, and the reality is even odder than the odd-sounding name.  Cock-of-the-rock (“cock” because of their crowing calls, and “rock” because of the boulder screes that comprise their nesting habitat) are some of the strangest birds you will see in an Ecaudorian rainforest– bright red, with puffy head-crests and almost-invisible bills.  Their mating system requires male birds to gather in a certain area of the forest canopy, called a “lek”, and conduct mass displays involving calling, flapping, preening, and fighting.  Female birds then come to the lek site and, based on these formidable shows of masculinity, choose which male to mate with.  We’ve yet to get a good video of the phenomenon, but there are a few good ones on YouTube.

The lek at Las Tangaras commands a beautiful view across a river valley, and from the relatively sheltered confines of the refugio– a tin roof propped over a wide bench– we watch misty Friday dawns cohere as the noises of night insects give way to the chattering of cicadas and wood wrens.  Attendance at the lek is patchy during the rainy season, but even if the birds don’t show up, it’s hard to beat watching a cloud-forest sunrise with tea, cinnamon rolls, and juicy plums.  If they do, we re-sight color bands and record behaviors of displaying males.


Sickle-winged guan

The lek visits always put us in a birding mood, so we’ve started keeping a bird list each Friday.  Ordinarily, we record only new or unusual species that we notice in the course of our other work, but Fridays are a chance to direct our attention specifically to birding.  Coincidentally (or not), many of our best sightings have been on Fridays.  Last Friday, for instance, we saw a pair of toucan barbets (spectacular, large barbets whose presence in Ecuador is restricted to a small section of the Northwest), a barred puffbird perched sumo-wrestler style on an exposed branch, a rufous-chested nighthawk flying overhead, a red-billed parrot munching on large berries, an immaculate antbird foraging around the roots of a fallen tree, and two torrent ducks swimming in the river.  Other Fridays have brought us crested guans, plate-billed mountain toucans, variable hawks, Cappuchin monkeys, and land crabs– Bird-Count Fridays don’t discriminate.  We usually see about 70 species in the course of the day– a modest number, but usually with a few new-for-us species to make it exciting.


Masked trogon

During the rest of the week life moves on, rain and sun, river swims and armadillos, building and research, and we always keep an eye on birds.  If we had to pick a favorite day, though, it would definitely be Bird Count Friday.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mike Walker permalink
    March 6, 2012 7:53 pm

    Being a first-time attendee with the 2011 June expedition, I can relate very well to what you write about. Your writing is wonderful, and you bring my memories flooding back!
    Keep up your good work! Those ACOR color bands can be devilishly difficult to see in the early light.
    Thank you for looking after the casita. I know I will be back down in the coming years, and I will certainly appreciate the fruits of your labors.
    Mike Walker


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