Marvellous spatuletails and Gocta waterfall

Hummingbird diversity is highest in the Andean foothills. Species ranges are limited by elevation, or by the complex topography of the region, and many species are endemic to a small area. Hummingbirds had captivated us since our journey began in Ecuador, and we had been lucky to see many dazzling species by the time we reached Peru, but there was one species, found only in the Northern highlands near Chachapoyas and one of the rarest in the world, that we were especially keen to see. The marvellous spatuletail has the most extravagant plumage of all hummingbirds, with males having long curved tail feathers, each with a disc on the end. These are extremely cumbersome for such a small bird, and make performing an acrobatic courtship display exhausting. The display therefore serves to demonstrate male quality.

Our hostel (the excellent Chachapoyas Backpackers) put us in touch with a man named Santos Montenegro, who has been instrumental in establishing the Huembo reserve and interpretation centre near Pomacochas where a number of hummingbird species can be seen. We gave him a call, and arranged to visit. Not knowing quite what to expect, and crossing our fingers that we would be lucky enough to see this beautiful bird, we were astounded when within two minutes of sitting down near his homemade feeders a male appeared. We were the only visitors, and we spent the next few hours quietly watching the comings and goings of not only both male and female spatuletails but many other species too, including the little woodstar, and the chestnut-breasted coronet. We were thrilled with our encounter with this amazing species. Peru (36)

The female spatuletail has discs too, but on shorter tail feathers. These female discs are a bit of an evolutionary mystery, because if their evolution in males is solely a result of female mate choice (females preferring males that are of a higher quality, as demonstrated by more elaborate and cumbersome plumage, with these males having a higher number of offspring, which inherit the same elaborate plumage, and so on) then they would not be expected in females too… a conundrum waiting to be solved.

Unfortunately we were too late in the day to have a chance of seeing the display itself, but keen birders can arrange to visit Santos’ private reserve on the land behind his home in Pomacochas, just up the road from Huembo, where he has found a lek (display) site. It was here that the BBC filmed the courtship display in slow-motion and high definition for the Life series, which revealed exactly what is happening during the display for the first time. The video can be seen here (unfortunately I can’t embed it, but I urge you to click the link and take a look!).

From this biological wonder, we then headed for a geological one: Gocta waterfall, one of the highest in the world at 771m (3rd, 5th or 16th highest depending on who you ask; who knew that waterfall measuring was such a controversial field). Regardless of ranking, the waterfall is spectacular, and incredibly it was largely unknown to the outside world until 2006 when it was measured for the first time. The falls have two drops, the top often disappearing amongst the clouds, and at the bottom the water disappears into tropical forest that is home to toucans, monkeys and cock of the rock birds.

We splurged with a stay at Gocta Lodge, a small hotel that was by far the most luxurious place on the trip, and an amazing treat, especially after some of the (bud beg ridden) mattresses we had slept on in the previous few weeks. The hotel is in the tiny village of Cocachimba, at the end of a long twisting unpaved road. Driving round each bend took us deeper and deeper into the stunning valley. Peru (42)Peru (39)

Each room at the hotel has a stonking view of the falls, and from the hotel it was a hot, sweaty, but beautiful 6km walk to the base of waterfall. We skirted the hillside, passing from agricultural land into the tropical forest, hearing the strange grating growling noise made by the elusive cock of the rock, and seeing the falls appear and disappear between the trees. Peru (49)Peru (53)Peru (60)

Finally we reached the bottom, the top section no longer in view. Rather than the roar of crashing water on rocks that we were expecting, it was quiet, as the water turned to vapour long before it reached the ground, and a fine mist drenched the rocks, cliffs, and us, as we gazed up in awe. Peru (65)Peru (58)

The pool made our bare feet ache with cold within seconds, so a swim was out, but we sat eating our picnic of enormous avocado, hyponotised by the spray, until all other visitors had left and we had the falls to ourselves. At last we headed back, finding the rough path tiring, the heat oppressive, and spurred on by the thought of jumping in the pool at the hotel as soon as we got back. Peru (63)Peru (71)Peru (85)

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Quito to Rio: the cloudforests and hummingbirds of Ecuador

We landed in Quito just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, watching tiny fireworks silently exploding over the city. At that point, the full extent of our plan was to reach Rio in time for a return flight 15 weeks later. After a couple of days wandering in a jet-lag and high-altitude daze around Quito’s busy streets, we escaped to Mindo, two hours away by bus. This journey took us up and out of the valley in which Quito sits between volcanic peaks, and then wound down into the wet and lush cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Mindo is a quiet little place, surrounded by forests and hills which often disappear into the clouds. We arrived in the rain at dusk, and made our way along virtually deserted streets to our accommodation at Cabanas Armonia. This is an orchid garden masquerading as jungle, and we were led to our little cabin, one of a handful tucked away amongst the plants. After the dry, thin air of Quito, the humidity, the smell of the wet vegetation, and the chorus of frogs, were wonderful.
The path to our cabin, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, EcuadorPrivate ensuite cabin with hammock, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, Ecuador

Highlights of our stay at Cabanas Armonia included lazy birdwatching from our private hammock, with toucans and hummingbirds among the many species that regularly passed by. Wandering through the garden finding some of the roughly 200 species of orchid that are grown here was fascinating. Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador

Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo EcuadorAnd having a delicious breakfast, outside, with a frenzy of hummingbirds zipping around so close to us that we could feel the air from their wings, made getting out of bed easy. Breakfast terrace Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

Breakfast Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

The family that owns Armonia maintains feeders for the hummingbirds, and these tiny birds drink litres of sugar water between them every day. Watching and listening to them whirr, chirp and squeak is hypnotic. 

And catching them with your camera becomes an endless challenge.

Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador

Hummingbirds have co-evolved with the flowers that they feed from, sometimes resulting in such close relationships that the length and curve of a beak perfectly matches the dimensions of the host flower. This ensures that the bird has access to nectar and the flower is guaranteed a pollinator. However, in other cases, as in one frequent visitor to a flower next to our cabin, species bypass this reciprocal relationship and simply pierce the base of the flower to access the nectar without any pollination benefit to the plant. Hummingbirds were a frequent sight on our Andean journey south, through Ecuador and Peru, and as ever Attenborough explains it best:

In between poring over our guidebooks and hatching a tentative plan to visit Ecuadorian jungles, volcanoes and colonial cities en route south to Peru, we went for walks in the countryside around Mindo. Strolls along the roads leading out of town led through verdant green valleys, coffee plantations, dripping tropical vegetation, and sightings of gaudy tanagers, toucans and aracaris, and a stunning quetzal. We took a rickety ‘cable car’, more accurately a cage on a wire, across a steep valley to walk along trails that linked a series of waterfalls in the forest. And we tried to reconcile the warmth and tropical surroundings with Twelfth Night celebrations in the church, and the curious nativity scene outside it.

On our way back to Quito a week later we had arranged to visit Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, 1000m higher up the mountains than Mindo. We got off the bus at a small village called Nanegalito, and were quickly approached by the driver of a pick-up truck taxi who drove us up the steep and winding single track lane to the lodge. The lodge is an incredible place, within a private reserve that protects 700 hectares of hugely biodiverse cloud forest. There is an extensive trail system, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, and it is renowned for its birding. Such luxury and biodiversity meant that the lodge itself was way beyond our tight backpacker budget – but it is still possible to stay and explore the reserve: a small research station doubles as basic hostel accommodation, but incredibly, very few people make use of this. This is a big shame because the forest around Bellavista is like nothing we had seen before – huge tree ferns, and trees dripping with multiple layers of vegetation, shrouded in ethereal mist and cloud which sometimes broke to reveal the  precipitous view down to the valleys below. The trails were easy to follow, and took us up and down steep ravines to hidden streams. Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador Bellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Ecuador (108) Ecuador (102)The research station accommodation was basic, but we had a warm bed and a hot shower, and pots and pans to cook with over a gas stove. Fellow residents included scientists from the States, their Ecuadorian research assistants, a couple of temporarily captive birds that were the focus of their studies, a sink-full of beetles collected for a small project, and a noisy mouse who helped itself to a chunk of banana in the kitchen. The captive birds were, of course, early risers and woke us from their room next to ours with an ear-splitting duet at dawn. Electricity is from a generator that is only run for a few hours a day, and as we were virtually on the equator it got dark about 6. Evenings were spent quietly by the light of candles and headtorches, listening to the myriad noises coming from the forest.  Ecuador (97) Ecuador (96)Ecuador (95) Ecuador (94) Ecuador (93)

It was the duetting of the birds that interested the scientists, as explained by Dr Eric Fortune in this video. The song he plays is the one that woke us each morning. It would wake the dead.

After ten days of cloudforest meanderings we made our way back to Quito, pausing to pose at the equator for a photo, bedraggled in wet and muddy clothes from the last hike along the trails that morning. Everything we had was damp, and had been for days, and just as the humidity had been so welcome after the dryness of Quito, returning to dry land was also a great relief after such a soggy time. Our clothes soon covered every available surface in our hostel room, and were dry by the morning.