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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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Aguas Verdes Revisited; another good news bird ecotourism story

This is an update of a posting from a couple of years ago; since then I've revisited Aguas Verdes, and I believe it's worth retelling the story, while also reporting on updates to the project and including some highlights from our second visit, to add to the first.

Some time ago, I told the remarkable story of Angel Paz and his cloud forest property Paz de las Aves on the western slopes of the Andes in northern Ecuador. I won't retell his story here - please trust me that it's worth reading if you're interested in the concept and haven't come across the tale.

Today I want to tell you about a more recent such enterprise further south on the other side of the Andes and across the border, on the eastern slopes in northern Peru. Norbil Becerra is a carpenter who was intending to turn his small family-owned patch of rainforest just outside of the little town of Aguas Verdes (not to be confused with the town of the same name on the Ecuadorian border) into a coffee plantation, which is the fate of much of the cloud forest around there. At 1500 metres above sea level these rich forests support a fascinating combination of upper and lower elevation species.

 Instead, inspired by what he saw at nearby Huembo Lodge (of which more in a forthcoming posting here), he put the coffee plantation plans away and turned his talents to building a viewing platform facing an array of hummingbird feeders. At Huembo he had seen the extraordinary Marvellous Spatuletail (see under September in that link) - his first ever hummingbird - and like many before him he was hooked. But more than that, he undertook to learn how the feeders worked and how he could emulate what he saw there.
Aguas Verdes is not a wealthy town, and it is unsurprising that Norbil's efforts met with local
opposition and even derision. But as the number of visitors and their money continues to rise, that
is changing and already Norbil and Evalina have made significant changes and additions to the infrastructure.
(On our first visit we arrived in a tremendous downpour; we were invited in to the simple open downstairs room
to have a cup of tea while we waited. The pig above trotted in while we were there, but was
only passing through to the back yard.)

Norbil, his son Christian and wife Evalina at Aguas Verdes, October 2017.

Norbil's viewing platform (here in 2015) is spacious and impressive - rivalled in my experience perhaps only by the
magnificent two storey structure at Waqanki Lodge at Moyobamba, not far to the east -  looking
not only at feeders but at plantings of selected flowering plants, chosen to attract both hummingbirds and butterflies.
Some hummingbirds turn their beaks up at feeders, but are unable to resist Verbena plantings.
The same platform two years later in 2017 (and taken from the other direction); you can see one of the
feeders just to the right of the platform, and get an idea of how much the vegetation
has grown in the meantime.
This gives an even greater appreciation of how much growth can occur in two years in this
part of the world; this is taken looking out of the platform towards the right of the 2015 picture above -
the bare ground there is now a tangle of flowering verbena, with hummers constantly flitting from flower to flower.
As you can see, on this most recent visit the rain came while we were on the platform - we just got there in time in fact! You can get a sense of its ferocity in the next photo, which shows a new building since 2015, planned as a little restaurant, though it is not yet open. It was a very welcome shelter in which to eat our packed lunches though.

Norbil's patience and determination in those early days were remarkable - it took seven months for the recalcitrant hummers to find the feeders, but he persisted in putting out sugar daily, cleaning and refilling the feeders, in the face of great pressure to be sensible, to clear and plant coffee. And in the end the birds came and, encouraged by nearby lodges and some socially-aware tour guides, visitors are coming too. We first did in September 2015, and felt hugely rewarded for our walk through streets still running with rainwater and then along a road for a kilometre out of town; fortunately the white sands under the forest drain the storm waters away efficiently.

Here is a selection of some the hummers we saw on our two visits, some of which are rare or hard to see elsewhere. Some of those photos taken in the rain in 2017 are rather 'noisy' as the light was very low.
Blue-fronted Lancebill Doryfera johannae.
This lovely hummer has a remarkably straight bill; it is scarce, though widely-distributed.
The closely related Green-fronted Lancebill D. ludovicae also comes to the feeders, and we
saw them together in 2017.

Fork-tailed Woodnymph Thalurania furcata, another widespread and truly gloriously
iridescent hummingbird.
Golden-tailed Sapphire Chrysuronia oenone; really, I run out of superlatives for hummers...
This one is found throughout the northern Andes.
Many-spotted Hummingbird Taphrospilus hypostictus, limited to the lower eastern slopes of
the northern Andes.

Sapphire-spangled Emerald Amazilia lactea in the rain.
This has a huge range across South America, though the taxonomy is vexed,
and some would split it, with this then becoming Spot-vented Emerald A. bartletti.

White-necked Jacobin Florisuga mellivora in very heavy rain!
This familiar species has an even bigger range, north to Mexico; this one's characteristic
white neck band is hidden in its fluffed-up feathers.

Blue-tailed Emerald Chlorostilbon mellisugus; male (above) - note the iridescence, even in the
absence of sunlight! - and female below.
Rufous-crested Coquette females Lophornis delattrei, above and below.
Unfortunately the ludicrously-coiffed male didn't turn up on this occasion.
Light, as I said, was low, so exposure was a relatively slow 1/125 second, but even so
the blurred wings give an idea of how fast they're whirring away!

For me though, the hummingbird highlight of the first visit - and indeed of both visits overall - was the truly amazing Wire-crested Thorntail Discosura popelairii. This was not the first time I'd seen it but it was by far the best view I've had, and the only chance I've had to take a moderately acceptable photograph.
Wire-crested Thorntail male at Verbena.
Birdlife International describes it as "generally rare"; Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to it as "stunning".
It is one of the most enthralling birds I've ever had the privilege of meeting.
Without the crest and the ridiculous tail the tiny female (no more than 8cm long)
isn't quite as impressive, but I reckon she's still pretty cool.
I mentioned the butterflies - I can't offer you names (and would be delighted if you could help out) but hopefully you can still enjoy a couple of them in anonymity. Understandably they didn't show up in the rain on our second visit.

However Norbil didn't stop there. Much more recently he built a nearby raised hide within the forest, and equipped it with a simple but ingenious mechanism to deliver corn to the forest floor in front of the viewing windows.
Norbil's hide for viewing almost mythically shy and hard-to-see birds of the cloud forest floor.
The corn is delivered though the pipe on the left to the ground below the viewing slots (below).
However by the time we returned in 2017 Norbil had already built a much grander hide, enclosed and with far more seating space, and a slicker corn- and seed-delivery system.
Isn't it impressive (even without the planned handrails)?!
Inside the hide, where there is now seating (and viewing) space for eight people.
Corn and seed dispenser, in the 'attic'.

The bird framed by the viewing slot in the old hide above is one I'd almost given up hope of seeing - a tinamou! Moreover, not one, but two species wandered in to offer us extended views. Tinamous belong to the ratites, the great flightless Gondwanan birds (ostriches, emus, rheas etc), but unlike their larger relatives they can still fly weakly.

This Cinereous Tinamou Crypturellus cinereus came in early, and others later followed.
It is widespread across northern South America but, like other tinamous, is very secretive.
Later it was joined by a Little Tinamou Crypturellus soui, likewise rarely seen normally.
Little Tinamou, another Aguas Verdes thrill.
Another hard-to-see resident of the forest interior which came to visit was the pretty little Orange-billed Sparrow Arremon aurantiirostris.

Orange-billed Sparrow, another new species for me.
Grey-necked Wood Rail Aramides cajaneus, perhaps not as hard to see as some of the
others, but hard to imagine a view as spectacular as this one!
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi.A large and widespread forest species, but not normally easy to approach.
Grey-fronted Dove Leptotila rufaxilla, very closely related to the previous species.
Both have very extensive, and largely overlapping ranges, but Grey-fronted is more strictly a bird of the rainforest.
Another star of this hide is the very elusive Rufous-breasted Wood-quail Odontophorus speciosus,  which come in groups in the morning - unfortunately both our visits were in the afternoon. One day...

When you're in northern Peru - which is entirely different from the more visited south of the country - there are several reasons to visit this wonderful innovation at Aguas Verdes, not the least of which is to do yourself a favour. The restaurant will probably be open! But supporting people like Norbil and Evalina and what they stand for is probably even more important.

(And I've just noticed that this is my 400th blog posting since I began in 2012.
Thanks for still being here!)

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