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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Mysterious Owl of San Isidro

Just back from another visit to wonderful Ecuador, it's perhaps inevitable that my first posting will relate to that. I'm easing myself back into life in Australia (albeit only for another 3 weeks!) so this is a relatively brief posting, based on one of the most interesting and intriguing encounters of our trip. I had not previously been to the north-eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, and realised I'd been missing some very special places. The eastern slopes seem to me wilder and less populated than the western ones that I've seen, at least in the north. 

San Isidro Lodge is a beautiful place to stay in a large tract of mostly primary rainforest whose continued existence is due to the foresight of Simón Bustamante back in the 1970s when the government was making wild land available to people to clear for farming. Simón did something unexpected - he acquired the land and left nearly all of it in its pristine state despite considerable pressure on him to 'improve' it. Today there are nearly 1800 hectares of forest protected in the expanded reserve. 
Cloud forest protected by San Isidro; the lodge is at 2000 metres above sea level.

Some of the cabins and elevated viewing platform.
The lodge grounds themselves are full of wildlife and there is no reason to go far from the cabins before breakfast. (San Isidro is noted for its food almost as much as its birds!) Here are a couple of my personal favourites, both species which are almost totally restricted to the eastern slopes - the high treeless paramo along the spine of the Andes provides a near total barrier to forest birds, allowing evolution to proceed separately on the two slopes.
Inca (or Green) Jays Cyanocorax yncas (also found in southern North America) form large
raucous mobs around the cabins and dining room. They are stunning.
The exquisite Long-tailed Sylph Aglaiocercus kingi is a glorious hummingbird which fits the
east-west divide concept perfectly, with a sister species (Violet-tailed Sylph A. coelestis) on the western slopes.
However, there is one bird found around the cabins which doesn't seem to fit any established concepts - unless it is indeed that most marvellous of treats for a birder, an undescribed species. This big handsome owl is indeed widely known in birding communities as 'the Mystery Owl'. 

It is one of four species of the South American genus Ciccaba - at least according to the influential South American Classification Committee, though elsewhere the genus is often included in the more widespread wood owl genus Strix. The Mystery Owl is only known from the vicinity of the San Isidro Cabins, though I'm not sure how intensively the wild forests further away have been searched for it. It is closely related to the Black and White Owl C. nigrolineata of the western slopes and the Black-banded Owl C. huhula (I love that name!) of the eastern lowlands. In plumage and, reportedly, in voice, it seems midway between both those species. Indeed the general approach to it is to tentatively regard it as an isolated sub-species of Black-banded, though it seems to me there is little basis for that. 

The Black-banded has apparently never been recorded higher than 900 metres above sea level; if it can indeed live in the extensive forests higher than that, why has it never been found there? However, before I conclude, let's meet this delightful and amenable bird.
San Isidro's wonderful 'Mystery Owl', photo taken in the carpark, by torchlight.
It's a substantial owl, standing at least 40cm high. Nonetheless, based on the habits of its closest
relatives, it probably eats mostly insects, hence its attraction to the lights of the lodge.
In the bad old days (not so long ago in fact) it would have simply been 'collected' (ie with a shotgun) though before the advent of modern DNA testing this wouldn't actually have told us much. We need DNA samples - eg from feathers from a nest or under a roosting site, or from hatched eggs - to get the final answer, but we can wait for that. My own feeling is that it will prove to be a separate species, and will probably eventually be found more widely in the mid-level cloud forests. 

Meantime it's good for us to be reminded regularly of how much we don't know, and how much is lost without our ever knowing it as we continue to treat the earth so badly. We must also remember though that there are good dedicated people trying to make amends; I am grateful to everyone associated with San Isidro.

Try and visit some time.

BACK ON TUESDAY

5 comments:

Flabmeister said...

Welcome back! I look forward to many more postings from the trip.

Martin

The happy wanderer. said...

It is interesting what we don't know. Great to hear that some people do have foresight!

John Holmes said...

San Isidro is a great place, we were there back in February. As you say, one has to admire the vision of the owners.

Les Mitchell said...

Read this article with great interest, Ian and checked out descriptions of related owls in Ridgely and Greenfield. Cabanas San Isidro would seem a great place to visit for birds (360 plus species)and surrounding primary forest. I see from their website that they spot Tapirs regularly.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, HW and John, how much our world needs such vision and foresight from individuals, in the general lack of both from governments.

Les, San Isidro is superb and a great complement to your eventual visit to Wild Sumaco, just a couple of hours ago. Tapirs, hmm.. (No, I'm sure it's true, but it's a huge area and the tapirs are generally nocturnal.) I'll do another post related to SI at some stage.