Category Archives: Travel

The Bluest Thrush

Grandala near Dzongla (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 September 2023

While on the way to somewhere else I found … the bluest thrush.

According to Birds of the World, the grandala (Grandala coelicolor) is a gregarious thrush that makes a vertical migration in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau(*) from barren alpine breeding grounds at 3900–5500 m (12,800-18,000 ft) to rocky mountainside valleys and ridges at 3000–4300 m (9,800-14,000 ft), sometimes as low as 2000 m (6,500 ft).

To put this in perspective, if grandalas lived in the U.S they could only breed on Denali (20,000 ft) or the highest Rocky Mountains. Some of them never come down as low as the highest point the Rockies, the peak of Mount Elder.

Range map of grandala, embedded from Birds of the World

Grandalas are the same size as wood thrushes and like the wood thrush are the only species in their genus, but there the similarity ends. For instance, grandalas are sexually dimorphic with royal blue males and brownish-gray females.

Five male and one female grandala (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Grandalas have versatile diets tuned to their cold climate lives. They eat insects in summer and fruit in fall and winter.

Like cedar waxwings grandalas travel in huge flocks in fall and winter. When they perch they flick their wings and tails.

Watch the bluest thrush in this 4:45 minute video by RoundGlass Sustain.

video from RoundGlass Sustain on YouTube

(*) Grandalas occur at high altitudes in these countries/territories: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, northern Myanmar.

(credits are in the captions)

At The Cape Last Week

Clouds over Cape Cod Bay near Mayflower Beach, 11 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

15 July 2023

Last week at Cape Cod I came away with many impressions and a few photos of things-that-stand-still. The clouds above Cape Cod Bay and the shallow waves at low tide made a pretty picture on 11 July.

Bird photos are beyond my cellphone’s capability so I’ve borrowed from Wikimedia Commons to illustrate. The Best Birds without a doubt were piping plovers and their chicks at Sea Gull Beach. So cute!

Piping plover chick, Rachel Carson NWR, Maine (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The most common songbird on the Cape is the gray catbird — as common as robins are in Pittsburgh.

Gray catbird in Massachusetts (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ospreys were always overhead. Most of them had nestlings getting ready to fledge.

Osprey bringing food to its nest, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Best Insect was an ebony damselfly seen at Stony Brook Mill Site with Bob Kroeger who took this photo.

Ebony damselfly, Stony Brook Mill Site, 8 July 2023 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Cape Cod has *lots* of rabbits everywhere. I didn’t think to take a photo when a rabbit was nearby. Can you see it in dappled shade in the middle of this photo?

One of the many rabbits on Cape Cod: on the trail at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, 11 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The flowers on this spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) had not yet opened on 6 July.

Spotted wintergreen, South Dennis, MA, 6 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A Life Flower: American cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare) in the dry upland pine forest at Wellfleet Bay. Amazingly it is semi-parasitic with leaves for photosynthesis and roots for pulling nutrients from pines, poplars, sugar maples, red oaks and low-bush blueberries.

American cow-wheat, Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary, 8 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Greenery we never see in Pittsburgh –> seaweed.

Seaweed at Sea Gull Beach, Yarmouth, MA, 7 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Our family prefers the beaches on Cape Code Bay where there’s lots of space to spread out at low tide. At high tide all but the far edge is underwater.

Overcast morning at Corporation Beach, Dennis, MA, 9 July 2023 (photo by Richard St. John)

And the waves are shallow like those at Lake Erie.

Sunny afternoon near Mayflower Beach, Dennis, MA, 11 July 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

At the end of our stay it was 90 degrees for a couple of days. Not so much fun in the sun. Though it’s nice to travel I’m glad to be home.

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

Bird on a Groundhog?

Cattle tyrant bird on a capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 June 2023

You’ll never see this bird and mammal wandering in North America.

The bird is the cattle tyrant (Machetornis rixosa) of South America, related to the great kiskadee whose northern range extends into south Texas.

The mammal is the world’s largest rodent, a capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), also in South America.

Capybaras are semi-aquatic (“hydro” in their genus name) and very social, living in groups of up to 100 individuals. See both characteristics in this video.

Capybara’s are so large that a raptor can look small when perched on one of them as shown in this vintage article.

How Plain-Tailed Wrens Sing The Perfect Duet

Plain-tailed wren at banding station, Bellavista, Pichincha, Ecuador, 2011 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 April 2023

Eighty days ago at Ecuador’s Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve our tour group heard this species singing from a thicket and added him — or perhaps a pair of them — to our Life Lists.

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, Ecuador, perhaps at Bellavista, while other birds were singing in the background. The plain-tailed wrens drown them out.

Intrigued by the birds’ fast-paced, precise duet, researchers in 2021 studied the birds’ brain waves to find the signal that governed the interchange. Instead of an added signal they discovered that, “the species synchronizes their frenetically paced duets by inhibiting the song-making regions of their partner’s brain as they exchange phrases.” The listener’s brain hears something from the partner that mutes his/her own song-making at just the right moment.

“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.”

It’s not too far-flung to think of these birds as jazz singers. “There are similar brain circuits in humans that are involved in learning and coordinating vocalizations. [Lead authors] Fortune and Coleman say the results offer a fresh look into how the brains of humans and other cooperating animals use sensory cues to act in concert with each other” just like jazz singers.

Here’s one more duet from Tandayapa, Ecuador. Amazing.

Read more at Good News Network: Duetting Songbirds ‘Mute’ the Musical Mind of Their Partner to Stay in Sync, Researchers Find. (quotes above are from this article.)

See the original study at PNAS: Neurophysiological coordination of duet singing.

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

Brilliants, Emeralds and Nymphs

7 April 2023

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 we wait for our own hummingbirds to return on migration, here’s another look at my WINGS birding trip to Mindo and the Northwest Andes (28 Jan – 5 Feb) with hummingbird photos and video by fellow travelers.

The photos at top are by Bob Black. The 16-minute video below is by Peter Haines (P.B. Child Birding). You’ll meet Peter’s dogs at the beginning.

video by P.B. Child Birding on YouTube

(*)p.s. Here’s where hummingbirds fit into the five largest bird families. Species counts are from Birds Of The World.

Family NameScientific nameWhere foundNumber of species
Tyrant FlycatchersTyrannidaeWestern Hemisphere441
Tanagers and AlliesThraupidaeWestern Hemisphere382
HummingbirdsTrochilidaeWestern Hemisphere363
Pigeons and DovesColumbidaeworldwide353
Old World FlycatchersMuscicapidaeEurasia and Africa345

(photos by Bob Black, video by P.B. Child Birding on YouTube)

In Ecuador, A Tale of Two Flowers

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 March 2023

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.

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Nasa grandiflora at Yanacocha, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Black-eyed susan vine, Thunbergia alata. Seen every day in Ecuador (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Vigorous growth of Thunbergia alata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gardeners don’t realize what they’ve wrought until it’s too late. Here are some examples from the invasives section of

Invasive Thunbergia alta (photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental,
Invasive Thunbergia alta (photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental,

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, click on bugwood captions to see the originals)

Balsa Wood’s Environmental Paradox

Balsa canopy and trunk against the sky (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 March 2023

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.

Mature balsa tree in Colombia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Balsa plantation (photo from both Forestry Journal UK and WR Carpenter PNG)

Most of us are familiar with balsa wood in toys and woodworking.

Boy flies a balsa wood airplane (photo by Liz Henry via Flickr Creative Commons license)

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).

Balsawood bridge contest at Whitmore Lake High School, 2006 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

Pre-Colombian balsa rafts in Ecuador circa 1565 and two modern balsa rafts next to a kayak (images from Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Wind turbine blades in transport, I-80 in Iowa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past decade when the Chinese government eliminated taxes for the alternative energy industry, it prompted a boom in wind turbine production. The majority of Ecuador’s balsa exports go to China.

Chuanshan Wind Turbine Field, 2015-04-11 02 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Mongabay, August 2021: Indigenous Amazonian communities bear the burden of Ecuador’s balsa boom

The deforestation shows up as pink dots in Global Forest Watch’s map, below left. Are these places where birders go? The eBird map of Ecuador hotspots at right is red at sites where birders reported more than 500 species. There seems to be overlap south and east of Quito.

Screenshots of Global Forest Watch map of Ecuador integrated deforestation alerts + eBird map of Ecuador hotspots

The environmental paradox of balsa wood is this: To create renewable energy quickly, we are cutting down the rainforest.

Read more in this article from Mongabay and this from World Rainforest Movement.

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)

Watch Hummingbirds in Ecuador

Click on here or on the image above to see the video at

24 February 2023

For a respite this cold weekend, take a break and watch hummingbirds in Ecuador.

At top, an empress brilliant (Heliodoxa imperatrix) and other hummingbirds feed from the hand of Carole Turek, founder of Click on the screenshot or at this link to watch Royal Hummingbird Feeding on my Hand: The Empress Brilliant.

You can also watch hummingbirds — live! — at Sachatamia Lodge in Mindo, Ecuador.

Click here to visit the live hummingbird stream on YouTube

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.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird, Feb 2023 (photo by P. B. Child)

Happy hummingbird Friday!

(screenshots from, rufous-tailed hummingbird photo by P. B. Child)

Not the Same: Yucca, Yuca

Yucca and yuca (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

20 February 2023

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.

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Cassava or yuca leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yuca, also called cassava, manioc and Manihot esculenta, is a native woody shrub of South America whose tuberous roots are a food staple in the tropics around the world. Yuca was already a local mainstay food when Europeans arrived to analyze it. Today it is “a primary component of the diet of more than 800 million people around the world.”

Cassava tubers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The taste ranges from sweet to bitter but the roots contain cyanide so they must be peeled, soaked and boiled or else cut or ground and sun-dried before eating.

After the root is prepared for eating it can be made into flour, tapioca, chips, noodles, fries etc. I ate fried yuca in Ecuador. It tastes like French fries.

Fried yuca (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mmmm good!

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

Birds in Thin Air: 11,500 Ft

Shining sunbeam, Yanacocha Reserve, Ecuador, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Mary Eyman)

Another look back at my trip with WINGS Birding Tours to Ecuador’s Mindo and the Northwest Andes: Yanacocha Biological Reserve, 30 Jan 2023.

19 February 2023

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.

The feeders near the parking lot were dominated by a few belligerent shining sunbeams (Aglaeactis cupripennis, above), but a feeder in the shadows attracted a sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), the only bird in the world with a beak longer than its body. He uses it to sip from passionflowers and hanging trumpet flowers.

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.

Google Earth screenshot of the 2 miles of Inca walking ‘road’ from Reserva Yanacocha to feeders and antpitta
Black-breasted puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis)

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.

Black-breasted puffleg, Yanacocha, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by P.B. Child)
Black-breasted puffleg, Yanacocha, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Jon Feenstra)

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.

Equatorial antpitta (Grallaria saturata)

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 gang watches the equatorial antpitta, Yanacocha, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Jon Feenstra)

The bird appeared in the shadows and walked into dim light.

Equatorial antpitta, Yanacocha, 30 Jan 2023 (photo by Jon Feenstra)

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.

The former rufous antpitta is now 13 species (Birds of the World screenshot)

Happy with our morning adventure we hiked back to the parking lot, becoming more accustomed to thin air.

(photos by Mary Eyman, P.B.Child and Jon Feenstra. Screenshots from Google Earth and Birds of the World)