Category Archives: Travel

How Big is a Giant Antpitta?

Giant antpitta in Mindo, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 February 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 4, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

Antpittas (family Grallariidae) are forest birds of Central and South America that specialize in eating ants. Though they nest in trees, they spend most of their time on the ground where their brown-rust plumage provides excellent camouflage. They are usually heard, not seen.

The typical antpitta is often described as a “ball on sticks” because most of them are small, plump and nearly tailless with long legs.

The giant antpitta (Grallaria gigantea) is far from typical. He’s the length of an American robin but weighs four times as much. He’s same weight as a pileated woodpecker and triple the weight of other antpittas in his area. Wikipedia explains:

G. gigantea is, as its name suggests, a huge antpitta. Length ranges from 24 to 28 centimetres (9.4 to 11.0 in) and weight is up to 300 grams (10.6 oz), which makes it easily the heaviest of all tracheophone suboscine birds. Its nearest rival, the chestnut-throated huet-huet [native to Chile], is not known to exceed 185 grams (6.5 oz).

Wikipedia: Giant antpitta

Usually a giant antpitta is never seen but you know he’s out there when you hear a sound like an eastern screech-owl that rises at the end. (Do you hear the rain in this audio clip?)

We expect to see him at Refugio Paz de las Aves because bird whisperer Angel Paz can call them into view to snack on earthworms.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto; click on the media links to se the originals)

Iconic Bird in Mindo

Toucan barbet photos from Wikimedia Commons (originals at links left, right)

31 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 3, birding in Mindo and the NW Andes

Now that we’re based at Séptimo Paraíso Lodge in the Mindo Valley we expect to see this iconic bird several times in the next five days.

Bright and colorful, the toucan barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus) is about the size of a starling though heftier. He uses his short fat beak to eat fruit, squeeze nectar from flowers, and dig nest holes in trees.

Toucan barbet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Toucan barbets are very social, living year round in a family group of six+ birds that claim 30 – 40 acres of mountain forest. The group consists of the breeding pair plus their offspring from prior years who help raise the young during the February-to-May (or as late as October) breeding season.

Cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The group starts the day with a duet to tell the neighbors: “Good morning! We are here! This territory belongs to us! We will fight you if you come here!” Other groups will sneak onto their land if they think the owners are far away.

Watch them eat, preen and “sing” in this video.

(photos form Wikimedia Commons, online resources: Birds of the World: Toucan barbet)

Loads of Hummingbirds!

30 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 2, Yanacocha Reserve on Pichincha Volcano

If you want to see hummingbirds, Ecuador is the place to be. It holds the worlds record for the highest number of species and contains about 40% of the total.

The checklist for our tour has 51 hummingbirds on it, 28 of which have been seen every time WINGS makes the trip. The slideshow displays 20 that we’re certain to see. I tried to memorize them in advance but there are just too many!

As you look at the hummingbirds, here’s something to watch for: Nearly every species has a white dot, called a post-ocular spot, or a white stripe of feathers behind the eye. Why do they have this and what is it for? My Google searches cannot find an answer.

Here are the species in slideshow order with links to their eBird descriptions and [photo on Wikimedia Commons].

  1. Andean emerald (Amazilia franciae) [photo] 
  2. Gorgeated sunangel (Heliangelus strophianus) [photo]
  3. Booted racket-tail  (Ocreatus underwoodii) [photo] 
  4. Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni) [photo] 
  5. Buff-tailed coronet (Boissonneaua flavescens) [photo] 
  6. Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) [photo] 
  7. Empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) [photo] 
  8. Fawn-breasted brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides) [photo] 
  9. Great sapphirewing (Pterophanes cyanopterus) [photo]  
  10. Purple-bibbed whitetip (Urosticte benjamini) [photo] 
  11. Purple-throated woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii) [photo] 
  12. Sapphire-vented puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani) [photo] 
  13. Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) [photo] 
  14. Sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) [photo]
  15. Speckled hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) [photo]
  16. Tawny-bellied hermit (Phaethornis syrmatophorus) [photo] 
  17. Tyrian metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina) [photo] 
  18. Violet-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis) [photo] 
  19. Velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini) [photo] 
  20. White-whiskered hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui) [photo] 

NOTE: The photos may not match exactly to the Mindo Valley hummingbirds because some species vary by location. For instance, see this illustration of the booted racket-tail.

Hello From Puembo

Scrub tanager, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 1, Puembo Birding Garden

Today I’m spending my first day in Ecuador at the Puembo Birding Garden, a bed and breakfast with cool birds conveniently located near Quito’s airport. Our WINGS tour opens here tonight at dinner.

Puembo Birding Garden is an eBird hotspot so I found out what I’m likely to see long before I arrived. #1 will be a Life Bird that ranges from Columbia to Ecuador, the scrub tanager (Stilpnia vitriolina), easily attracted to fruit trays even in the rain.

Scrub tanager in the rain, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps I’ll hear a croaking ground dove (Columbina cruziana) that looks like an orange-billed mourning dove and sounds like a frog …

Croaking ground dove, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or the bright red crimson-mantled woodpecker (Colaptes rivolii) …

Crimson-mantled woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… or an amazing hummingbird, the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae).

Black-tailed trainbearer in Quito (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Check out this video for a look at where I am today.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, click on the captions to see the originals)

Gone Birding in Ecuador’s NW Andes

Choco toucan, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 Jan 2023, WINGS in Ecuador: Day 0, Fly to Quito before the tour begins

Today I’m on my way to a 9-day WINGS Birding Tour in Ecuador’s Mindo and Northwest Andes. I expect to see at least 200 Life Birds including the choco toucan (Ramphastos brevis), described as the most emblematic bird of the Pichincha Province where we’ll be birding.

This is my first trip to Ecuador so everything will be new. Located on the Pacific Coast of South America, it’s about the size of Oregon with a population density similar to Michigan’s. Amazingly, it is directly south of Pennsylvania and presently in the same time zone because PA is on Standard Time right now.

Map of Ecuador and its neighbors (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Ecuador is famous for its biodiversity and especially its birds. The country’s checklist of 1,656 species is considerably more than the number in the entire U.S. Our tour in the Northwest Andes won’t need to travel far to see them. Staying within Pichincha Province and 100 miles of Quito, our checklist contains 535 species including 51 hummingbirds and 59 tanagers.

WINGS Birding Tours route in Ecuador NW Andes, 29 Jan – 5 Feb 2023 (image from WINGS Birding Tours)

This large number of birds is directly related to the Ecuador’s diverse habitats.  Though we will never see the ocean we’ll travel in cloud forest from 5,000 to 12,000 feet. At the higher elevations we may see the Chuquiraga plant (Chuquiraga jussieui), a hummingbird favorite and the national flower of Ecuador.

Chuquiraga jussieui, the National Flower of Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though we’ll have WiFi at the lodge I know I’ll be too busy to blog so I’ve written all 10 days of articles in advance.  For now, I’m (mostly) off the grid until I my return to Pittsburgh on Monday evening, February 6.


  • The National Bird of Ecuador is the Andean condor. It is extremely unlikely we’ll see it.
  • The number of species in the U.S. varies based on what’s included. Wikipedia’s list of 1,125 includes 155 accidental, 101 casual, 55 introduced and 33 extinct. The real wonder is that the U.S. spans a continent and includes arctic Alaska and tropical Hawaii yet it has fewer species than Ecuador, which is only the size of Oregon.

(photo and maps from Wikimedia Commons and WINGS. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Best Feedercam!

Pine grosbeak in winter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 December 2022

Severe cold weather has people huddling indoors and birds flocking to feeders across North America. If you don’t have a feeder you can still watch birds online at Ontario Feederwatch, one of the best around.

Tune in to see the usual suspects — cardinals, chickadees, blue jays — and some boreal specialities including common redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks (above), evening grosbeaks, and crossbills.

Click here or on the screenshot below (with 5 pine grosbeaks!) to visit Ontario Feederwatch at All About Birds. It’s my favorite feedercam.

Ontario Feederwatch with Pine Grosbeaks! 20 Dec 2022 (All About Birds)

By the way, if you don’t see a bird when you tune in, just wait. If you hear them chirping in the background they’re about to arrive.

(photo of common redpoll from Wikimedia Commons; screenshot from Ontario Feederwatch; click on the captions to see the originals)

Scenes From Acadia, September 2022

  • Snowball bush, Northeast Harbor, Maine, 24 Sept 2022

1 October 2022

Last week, after a four-year hiatus, my husband and I enjoyed revisiting Acadia National Park. The scenery was beautiful and even the fog was gorgeous, as shown in the slideshow above. Jordan Stream was in full flow after a long day of rain.

We also learned a few things about Acadia and ourselves in 2022.

  • The park is jam-packed with visitors even in late September. Labor Day used to be the last big weekend — which is why we visited in mid/late September — but the number of people and cars on 23 September rivaled anything we’d seen in the past.
  • I used to drive up Cadillac Mountain on a whim to visit the Acadia Hawk Watch but now all visits are by reservation, reviewed at the checkpoint at the base of the mountain. The photo below shows why reservations are required. We did not visit Cadillac.
Sunrise is the busiest time on Cadillac Mountain (photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia embedded from
  • Four years ago we still climbed the mountains. This year we climbed a low one — less than 300 feet above sea level — and did not enjoy the challenging bits. Perhaps we are out of shape … but I think four years makes a difference at our age. Alas.
  • Seven days were too short for a vacation to Acadia because it takes so long to get there, even by air.

Acadia will be busy through Columbus Day weekend and perhaps beyond. Fall color still hasn’t peaked yet.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Eiders In Eclipse

Male common eider in eclipse plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 September 2022

In September large, dark brown sea ducks swim in rafts off the coast of Maine. When they aren’t resting on the water they dive for mussels and crustaceans or walk up on the rocks to stand among the seaweed.

Common eiders on seaweed rocks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They vaguely resemble the lead field guide pictures for common eider (Somateria mollissima) but their current plumage is motley and variable. Right now common eiders are in eclipse.

Like many ducks and geese, eiders completely molt their tail and wing feathers after the breeding season, rendering them flightless for 3-4 weeks. Flight is restored in time for fall migration, but then they molt their body feathers. All told the process takes 4+ months.

To see eiders in all their glory watch them in breeding plumage from January to early June.

Male and female common eiders in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And you’ll see them fly.

Male common eider running to take off, April, East Sussex UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Revisiting a Favorite Place

Brooding sky at Acadia National Park near Thunder Hole, 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 September 2022

Today we’re in Maine for a week-long return to a favorite place.

For 36 years starting in 1983 we visited Acadia National Park every September, only missing two years in all that time. But now it’s 2022 and we haven’t been back since 2018.

The ocean, mountains and lakes will be the same.

Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park, 7 Sep 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park, 7 Sep 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

But some things will be different.

Maple leaves turning red, Acadia National Park, Sept 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

We’ll be surprised by the changes to businesses, buildings and people we haven’t seen for four years though my husband and I have changed, too. We’ll notice our own changes when we pass by difficult trails we won’t climb anymore. Fortunately there are plenty of easy trails we’ve never walked because we thought they were “too easy” 30 years ago.

Tomorrow we’ll re-experience a hurricane passing offshore when Hurricane Fiona generates high surf and high winds on its way to Nova Scotia. Many things are memorable.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Kate St. John)