The plain-tailed wren (Pheugopedius euophrys) is hard to see but its incredibly loud voice is easy to hear, made doubly loud when a pair sings a complicated duet. The duet below was recorded near Tandayapa, perhaps at Bellavista, while other birds were singing in the background. The plain-tailed wrens drown them out.
“Think of these birds like jazz singers,” said lead author Melissa Coleman. “Duetting wrens have a rough song structure planned before they sing, but as the song evolves, they must rapidly coordinate by receiving constant input from their counterpart.
“What we expected to find was a highly active set of specialized neurons that coordinate this turn-taking, but instead what we found is that hearing each other actually causes inhibition of those neurons—that’s the key regulating the incredible timing between the two.”
The hummingbird family (Trochilidae) is one of the five largest on Earth(*) containing 363 species in 112 genera. Though many are named “hummingbird” most have fanciful names that reflect their beauty including brilliant, emerald, woodnymph, coronet and sunbeam.
While on the trail in Ecuador at Yanacocha Reserve on 31 Jan 2023, this beautiful native flower attracted my attention. Nasa grandiflora, is a member of the Loasaceae family and endemic to the mountains of Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia.
I could not resist looking inside the flower bell so I tipped it up and took two photos, one focused at the opening, the other focused deep inside.
Most people don’t touch this plant but I didn’t notice its black spines, including on the sepals (see photo below) that act like stinging nettle when you touch them. It’s a good thing it was so cold that I was wearing gloves.
The second flower that caught my attention was along the back roads in the Mindo area and was hard to miss. Its vines draped over everything at the sunlit openings.
Black-eyed susan vine (Thunbergia alata) is native to eastern Africa but is grown in gardens in many countries. In tropical areas it has become invasive including in Ecuador and Florida.
Once this vine takes hold it is difficult to eradicate because it grows fast above ground and spreads rapidly via rhizomes. It was sad to see the Ecuadoran equivalent of porcelain berry or kudzu.
Gardeners don’t realize what they’ve wrought until it’s too late. Here are some examples from the invasives section of Bugwood.org.
The two flowers have different survival strategies: The native flower has a spiny defense. The alien overcomes the competition.
(photos by Kate St. John and from Bugwood.org, click on bugwood captions to see the originals)
While traveling in Ecuador last month I saw balsa trees growing in the wild and learned that Ecuador supplies 95% of the world’s commercial balsa wood. The driving force behind these exports is an environmental paradox.
Balsa (Ochroma pyramidale) is a pioneer tree of tropical forest clearings, native to Central and South America. It is so fast growing that it can grow 6-9 feet a year and reach full height of about 100 feet in only 10-15 years. The trees are short-lived, lasting only 30-40 years.
Inside the living wood the cells are large, thin-walled and full of water so that the tree stands upright. When cut and kiln dried the wood is very lightweight and sturdy.
In the wild balsa trees are widely spaced at about one tree per acre (2-3/hectare) but to meet commercial demand balsa is grown in plantations containing 400 trees/acre (1000/hectare). Plantation trees are cut at 6-10 years old because much of the wood in older trees — the core and outer layers — is commercially useless.
Most of us are familiar with balsa wood in toys and woodworking.
This balsa wood bridge won a physics contest in 2006. It weighs only 60.95 grams (0.134 pounds) yet it supported 14.51 kg (31.989 pounds).
Ecuadorans made ocean-going rafts of balsa logs long before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s and it is still used for rafts today. (Balsa is the Spanish word for raft.)
But none of these uses are the driving force behind increased Ecuadoran balsa exports.
Balsa wood is a component in wind turbine blades. According to GE which manufactures wind turbine blades at Castellon, “Workers make the blades from fiberglass fabric and balsa wood. Then, the blade is covered with an airtight foil and the team installs a network of tubes that pumps in and distributes the resin that will hold it together.”
Plantations provide 60% of Ecuador’s balsa wood but the remaining 40% is coming from wild trees in the rainforest. Using satellite images and on-the-ground followup Mongabay and Global Forest Watch have documented deforestation in Ecuador, especially east of the Andes in the Amazon watershed. According to Mongabay:
The Pastaza River Basin is one of the areas most affected by the balsa industry. There, the Pastaza, Bobonaza, Curaray, Villano, Copataza and other rivers are used as logging access routes, with satellite imagery showing their banks increasingly pockmarked by deforestation. Sources tell Mongabay Latam that the logging has been so intense that balsa has been completely removed from some areas.
…[And now] loggers are starting to harvest other timber species in areas that have been denuded of balsa.
“The same loggers and traders that one year ago arrived from [the cities of] Quevedo, Esmeraldas or Guayaquil are now arriving to look at what else is there,” Páez said.
“There is an ongoing process of deforestation of valuable tree species in Indigenous territories” with no monitoring by the authorities, she added.
NOTE about the eBird map: eBird maps show where birders have found birds and reported them on eBird. The blank spots on the Ecuador map do not indicate an absence of birds but instead an absence of birders or an absence of Internet access.
(photo and map credits are in each caption; click on the captions to see the originals)
You can also watch hummingbirds — live! — at Sachatamia Lodge in Mindo, Ecuador.
In the brief moment I watched the live stream, two rufous-tailed hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) visited the feeders and chased each other. Notice the orange beak, green body and rufous tail. We saw them at Mindo, photo below by P. B. Child.
In Ecuador I ate yuca, not yucca. The names sound the same and are nearly spelled the same but they are not the same plant at all.
Yuccas are members of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) that grow in hot, dry places in the Americas and Caribbean. Ranging from ground-based rosettes of sword-shaped evergreen leaves to the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) of the Mojave Desert only their flower petals are eaten and then only in Central America. The yucca’s main cultivated use is as an ornamental plant.
But back in the 1700s when Europeans were renaming everything they found in the Americas, “early reports of the [Yucca] species were confused with cassava (Manihot esculenta).Consequently, Linnaeus mistakenly derived the generic name for yucca from the Taíno word for the cassava, yuca.” — quoted from Wikipedia yucca account
It’s hard to imagine how the mix up occurred. Their leaves and growing patterns are not at all the same.
On our first full day of birding in Ecuador we traveled to another world on the slope of Pichincha Volcano. All eight of us had arrived from home elevations of 50 to 2,400 feet above sea level, yet within an hour and a half of breakfast we emerged from the van at 11,500 feet (3500 m). The birds at Yanacocha Reserve were spectacular and unaffected by thin air.
To see more hummingbirds and other rarities we walked the Inca Road 4+ miles round trip. This screenshot from Google Earth shows that the ancient road remains at the same elevation by winding along the slopes. There were no steep grades but the thin air made rapid walking unpleasant. Fortunately we stopped often for birds.
The Best Bird of the day, and a Life Bird for our guide Jon Feenstra, was an endangered hummingbird with an extremely restricted range. This female black-breasted puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis) is one of no more than 250 remaining in the wild. She stopped us in our tracks at a bend in the trail. Two photos of the same bird.
Our walk’s destination was a cluster of feeders with five more species of hummingbirds, two species of flowerpiercers, and no shining sunbeams. Just beyond the feeders a member of the Reserve staff showed us a bird we never expected to see.
Antpittas of all kinds are easy to hear but rarely seen.
We lined up to wait as the “bird whisperer” whistled the antpitta’s song and left worms at the feeding zone.
The bird appeared in the shadows and walked into dim light.
The field guide said it was a “rufous antpitta” but the book is outdated. In 2020 the rufous antpitta was split into 13 similar species. The 13 species have white backgrounds below; equatorial antpitta outlined in magenta.
Happy with our morning adventure we hiked back to the parking lot, becoming more accustomed to thin air.
Vultures used to abandon the Pittsburgh area in winter but as the climate heated up small groups of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) began to stay through the coldest months. Then about two years ago black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which are rare here at any time of year, changed their winter habits one bird at a time.
This winter a single black vulture has been roosting with turkey vultures on a cell tower near Audubon of Western PA’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. Every time someone reports him to eBird he pops up in a Rare Bird Alert.
Pennsylvania is the northern fringe of the black vulture’s winter range while the heartland is in Central and South America (see Jan-Feb eBird map below). In Ecuador I saw black vultures every day.
If you want to see huge flocks of black vultures in winter, Florida is the place to be. They perch on buildings or stand around on dikes with their wings open.
Only as big as a European starling, this accipiter native to Central and South America is aptly named the tiny hawk (Microspizias superciliosus).
Why is he so little? Because he eats the smallest birds.
Like all accipiters, the tiny hawk feeds primarily on birds. It hunts hummingbirds and small songbirds, by darting out from a place of concealment to snatch them as they pass by, but also ambushing them when the smaller birds are perched. There is some evidence that it learns the regular perches of some hummingbirds and hunts for them there. Some individuals also hunt rodents and bats.
At first I misread the word as “supercilious” meaning arrogant or haughty. There’s a connection between the two words. Arrogant or haughty people sometimes raise one eyebrow to show their attitude toward others.
We didn’t see the tiny hawk during our Ecuador birding trip because we were in Mindo & the northwest highlands while he lives in the lowlands and foothills.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
While listening to birdsong in the cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador I heard two songs that reminded me of home. Neither bird is colorful. Their songs are beautiful.
The “Wood Thrush of the Andes”
As soon as I heard the Andean solitaire (Myadestes ralloides) his voice reminded me of the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). The solitaire’s syrinx allows him to harmonize with himself just like a wood thrush and his cadence is similar though his voice is higher. In my field notes I dubbed him “The Wood Thrush of the Andes.” Listen to him below and see what you think.
For comparison, here’s a wood thrush in Schenley Park last spring.
(American) “Robin of the Andes”
The Ecuadorian thrush (Turdus maculirostris) looks like a large dull-colored American robin (Turdus migratorius) while his song is similar but better. It’s no wonder they are similar, they’re in the same genus. Listen to the Ecuadorian thrush below and see if you agree that he’s the “Robin of the Andes.”
Ecuadorian thrush singing in the rain:
Ecuadorian thrush morning chorus:
For comparison, here’s the spring song of an American robin during the morning chorus.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, audio from Xeno Canto; click on the captions to see the originals)