Photography of roadside flora in the Andes

“What a gorgeous sighting!” we thought as we clicked on our cameras. No, it wasn’t always birds we were excited to see on our weeklong bird-watching trip.

Our guide, Marcelo Quipo, led us in search of birds, and we did see many wonderful new species. An unexpected bonus – as we walked many miles down trails and back roads in the Andes Mountains near Mindo, Ecuador – were all the other sights just waiting to be photographed. The easiest subjects of all were the glorious plants, and most were new to us.

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Was it only in my imagination that this fern, ready to unfurl, was watching us?

We thought this blossoming flower looked more like sea anemone.

We thought this blossoming flower looked more like sea anemone.

No, it hadn’t rained. We were up at 11,000’ in a cloud forest when we saw this flower.

No, it hadn’t rained. We were up at 11,000’ in a cloud forest when we saw this flower.

Any pollinator approaching would appreciate the design on the inside of the flower which was hidden from our view.

Any pollinator approaching would appreciate the design on the inside of the flower which was hidden from our view.

Were these directional signs to proceed forward down the path?

Were these directional signs to proceed forward down the path?

Marcelo told us the red tips on the leaves evolved to attract birds to pollinate the flower that was under the leaves.

Marcelo told us the red tips on the leaves evolved to attract birds to pollinate the flower that was under the leaves.

Fern spore design on the underside of the leaf.

Fern spore design on the underside of the leaf.

We never tired of observing the flora around us, and only a call from Marcelo, “Hey, guys, come here! It’s a new bird…,” could pull us away.

 

July 2016

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What we saw when we didn’t see birds

When we go on a bird walk, birds don’t always appear frequently. We find ourselves walking through the woods, our guide walking ahead looking and listening. Sometimes our attention drifts to other creature spottings – and then, the birds might just have to wait.

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Many frog experts do field research at Las Gralarias, where we stayed for a week in Ecuador. No wonder our guide, Marcelo, seemed able to spot even the smallest frogs so easily.

We now have lots of photos of spiders from our travels. As we look for birds the glistening spider webs attract our attention. This is definitely not one we’d seen before.

We now have lots of photos of spiders from our travels. As we look for birds the glistening spider webs attract our attention. This is definitely not one we’d seen before.

Our guide, Marcelo, showed us why half the leaf was missing.

Our guide, Marcelo, showed us why half the leaf was missing.

The bee was much larger than we usually see, and the bright red color got our attention.

The bee was much larger than we usually see, and the bright red color got our attention.

Is this a grasshopper? The flashy yellow eyes and the bright green body looked not quite real.

Is this a grasshopper? The flashy yellow eyes and the bright green body looked not quite real.

When we see lots of butterflies – as we often did in Ecuador – it seems a sign to us of a more balanced ecosystem.

When we see lots of butterflies – as we often did in Ecuador – it seems a sign to us of a more balanced ecosystem.

Whether this sign of a more balanced ecosystem is true or not, the wealth of sightings on our many bird walks of gorgeous creatures and plant life was inspiring. Who wants to just look for birds when there are so many plants, animals, and insects to also observe?

 

 

June 2016

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Arranging our own trip to see birds in Ecuador

If you enjoy seeing birds then Ecuador is a very good place to go. It’s a relatively small country (the size of the state of Colorado) and has 1,663 bird species (compared to 990 in the United States). Per square mile there are more bird species in Ecuador than anywhere else in the world (if I figured that one out correctly). Clearly, our trip to Ecuador had to include time to see birds!

First, we searched for arranged, guided bird-watching trips but knew most were priced beyond what we could afford. After a lot of research, the perfect solution appeared. Our friends, Jo and Louise, and we all booked a week at Reserva Las Gralarias, a not-for-proft organization preserving this bird-rich natural habitat near Mindo, Ecuador. Our days would be spent birdwatching with Marcelo Quipo, our guide, along with our driver, Milton.   We would birdwatch every day and come back in the late afternoons to Las Gralarias, relax by the fire in the sitting room, have a lovely dinner, and spend the nights there.

Jane Lyons, the founder of Las Gralarias, suggested a schedule that included seeing a wide variety of birds in different terrains.

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We climbed up slick paths in the forests and were rewarded with sightings of 3 different antpittas, dark-backed wood-quail, golden-naped tanager, and others.

Even on days when the clouds settled over us, we had great sightings of powerful woodpeckers, golden-headed quetzal, crimson-mantled woodcreeper, hooked-billed kite, and many more.

Even on days when the clouds settled over us, we had great sightings of powerful woodpeckers, golden-headed quetzal, crimson-mantled woodcreeper, hooked-billed kite, and many more.

Most birds could easily be seen with binoculars, but photography with our small cameras was limited. Marcelo took this photo of the Masked Trogon with Joe’s iPhone and his spotting scope.

Most birds could easily be seen with binoculars, but photography with our small cameras was limited. Marcelo took this photo of the Masked Trogon with Joe’s iPhone and his spotting scope.

One day we drove some distance to see some unusual species of birds, such as cock of the rock, but our favorite of the day were oilbirds in a grotto. The oilbirds perch on rock walls during most of the day and search for fruits at night. They fly using echolocation like bats. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oilbird

One day we drove some distance to see some unusual species of birds, such as cock of the rock, but our favorite of the day were oilbirds in a grotto. The oilbirds perch on rock walls during most of the day and search for fruits at night. They fly using echolocation like bats.

The Toucan Barbet flew in to a clearing with feedesr, always a good place to watch birds and get a few photos.

The Toucan Barbet flew in to a clearing with feeders, waiting for an opportunity to dine on bananas.

The hummingbird feeders at Las Gralarias provided relaxation and great bird viewing. We perched on chairs with cameras and binoculars in hand and watched a dazzling array of hummingbirds fly to the feeders.

The hummingbird feeders at Las Gralarias provided relaxation and great bird viewing. We perched on chairs with cameras and binoculars in hand and watched a dazzling array of hummingbirds.

The hummingbirds all have amazing names like Brown Violetear (photo), Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Tyrian Metaltail, Saphire-vented Puffleg, Shining Sunbeam, Black-tailed Trainbearer, …

The hummingbirds all have amazing names like Brown Violetear (photo), Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Tyrian Metaltail, Saphire-vented Puffleg, Shining Sunbeam, Black-tailed Trainbearer, …

We stayed in the 3-bedroom guesthouse at Las Gralarias; relaxed on the terrace; watched the birds at the feeders; and, when the sun got low, we went inside and Marcelo lit a fire in the fireplace for us.

We stayed in the 3-bedroom guesthouse at Las Gralarias; relaxed on the terrace; watched the birds at the feeders; and, when the sun got low, we went inside and Marcelo lit a fire in the fireplace for us.

The week at Las Gralarias exceeded our expectations. We saw over 200 bird species due to our brilliant guide, and many plants and animals we’d not known.   Staying at a comfortable lodge with good hosts and wonderful food was an extra bonus.

 

July 2016

 

 

 

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If you go to Otavalo…

Many visitors to Ecuador make the trip up to the market town of Otavalo as a day trip. Otavalo is home to the famous, and largest, indigenous market in South America. We were told that many tourists opt to take the “day excursion,” paying $50 to catch the bus in Quito in the early morning and returning again that night. We have a suggestion to make: take your time, save some money, and enjoy what Otavalo has to offer.

From Quito, we took a taxi up to the Terminal Carcelen (northern) bus station and bought tickets for the bus to Otavalo for less than US $3 each. Even though many buses depart each hour, we were surprised to be guided to a bus that took off within 5 minutes. We sat on the right side for good views, sat back, and relaxed. Between watching the scenery and a Robert deNiro movie, “The Intern” in Spanish, we were totally entertained.

We traveled with old friends, Jo and Louise, and the four of us had decided to stay in Otavalo for 3 days, going against the common advice of limiting the trip to just one day.

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We relaxed, walked around town, spent the better part of one day browsing at the market and people-watching.

Our second day we headed up to a nearby village of Agato to visit Miguel Andrango, one of the best weavers in Ecuador.  A scenic country road took us to the Peguche waterfall, where we had lunch at a simple cafe before heading down to Otavalo.

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The next day was our return bus ride back to Quito, and we couldn’t resist taking photos of the mountain scenes glimpsed fleetingly through the bus window.

I heard someone on the bus refer to these scenes as Alpen, and it did look like the foothills of the Alps, but the correct term would be Andean.

I heard someone on the bus refer to these scenes as Alpen, and it did look like the foothills of the Alps, but the correct term would be Andean.

We took the Pan-American Highway which only passed through a few small towns, and our curiosity was piqued by life in a small town.

We took the Pan-American Highway which only passed through a few small towns, and our curiosity was piqued by life in a small town.

The bus stopped at a light, and we watched as a construction worker emerge from a manhole cover on a sidewalk. That was unexpected!

The bus stopped at a light, and we watched as a construction worker emerge from a manhole cover on a sidewalk. That was unexpected!

A street vendor came on the bus long enough to sell his snack foods. When finished, he hopped off the bus and disappeared from our view as the bus sped away.

A street vendor came on the bus long enough to sell his snack foods. When finished, he hopped off the bus and disappeared from our view as the bus sped away.

When we saw the vast expanse of gray for the first time on distant hills we imagined it was strip mining. After a closer look we realized that unstable hillsides were covered in concrete.  

When we saw the vast expanse of gray for the first time on distant hills we imagined it was strip mining. After a closer look we realized that unstable hillsides were covered in concrete.

We enjoyed our 3-day excursion to Otavalo but for a different reason than most people who make the trip. While we enjoyed the indigenous market and making deals for gifts to take home, it paled in comparison to the other delights of the trip that were totally unexpected. And that’s what we always hope for in our travels.

(For more about Otavalo, see our previous posts: “The highpoint of our trip to Otavalo” and “A Sunday stroll from Agato to Otavalo”)

 

June 2016

 

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A Sunday stroll from Agato to Otavalo

We took a taxi from our hotel in Otavalo up into the mountains to the little hamlet of Agato with our friends, Jo and Louise. We had the most delightful visit with Miguel Andrango, one of the best weavers in Ecuador. After we said our goodbyes to Miguel, we walked a few meters down the road and confusion set in. Which road should we follow? We had planned to walk back to Otavalo, taking the “scenic route”, but the directions were rather vague. Our confidence that we’d figure it out hadn’t lasted long.

Fortunately, a few local people walked by, and they kindly motioned for us to follow the narrow, rough road.

Within minutes the scenery was so beautiful that it hardly mattered whether we were on the right road or not.

Within minutes the scenery was so beautiful that it hardly mattered whether we were on the right road or not.

Joe was first to come to a cross road with a sign confirming that we were, indeed, on the path we had intended to take.

Joe was first to come to a cross road with a sign confirming that we were, indeed, on the path we had intended to take.

This road descended through a forest filled with wildflowers.

This road descended through a forest filled with wildflowers.

We suddenly heard a waterfall below us, and, through the trees, we could see the water cascading down, but the falls were far below us. The distance was so great that we could barely make out little people scrambling up a path at the waterfall’s base. How could we find a path down to see the waterfall up close?

It wasn’t until we had descended the hill, far below the falls, that we discovered the path back up to a good look-out spot. The Peguche Falls are 18 meters (50’). The drop is more impressive in person since it’s much higher than it appears, and the water was coming down with a lot of force. If you spot the person on the dirt path at the lower right, it will put the height in perspective.

It wasn’t until we had descended the hill, far below the falls, that we discovered the path back up to a good look-out spot. The Peguche Falls are 18 meters (50’). The drop is more impressive in person since it’s much higher than it appears, and the water was coming down with a lot of force. If you spot the person on the dirt path at the lower right, it will put the height in perspective.

After a long morning we were ready for something to eat. Fortunately for us, there was a little café in the park. We sat on wooden stools and watched as the cooks ladled out traditional quinoa soup into bowls for us.

After a long morning we were ready for something to eat. Fortunately for us, there was a little café in the park. We sat on wooden stools and watched as the cooks ladled out traditional quinoa soup into bowls for us.

Further down the road, local dogs barely acknowledged us as we passed by.

Further down the road, local dogs barely acknowledged us as we passed by.

Again, we weren’t certain we were on the right path back to town until we saw the greeting in huge bright colors, “Otavalo”! Almost home.

Again, we weren’t certain we were on the right path back to town until we saw the greeting in huge bright colors, “Otavalo”! Almost home.

 

 

June 2016

 

 

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The highpoint of our trip to Otavalo

We’re very lucky. Our travels have taken us to many amazing places and we’ve had more than our fair share of great travel experiences. So, who knew that we would have an opportunity to learn about weaving from one of the best in Ecuador? A rare and bittersweet experience, as backstrap loom weaving is quickly becoming an endangered art in Ecuador.

Miguel Andrango warmly greeted us at the entrance to his house and studio in the little village of Agato, outside Otavalo. The studio was light and tidy but also looked like we had stepped back in time. The tools all looked very basic and well used over many years.

Miguel explained the first step: cleaning the wool in the river using a soapy lather made from agave. Fifteen to twenty minutes of pounding on rocks and rinsing was all that was needed. Impurities are removed from the wool.

Miguel carded the wool several times, each time with a progressively finer-grade carder. In the past, thistles were used before carders.

Miguel carded the wool several times, each time with a progressively finer-grade carder. In the past, thistles were used before carders.

The materials he uses for weaving are wool from sheep and alpaca, as well as some cotton.

The materials he uses for weaving are wool from sheep and alpaca, as well as some cotton.

The natural dyes are walnut for brown, Indigo for blue, cochineal (a bug) for red, lichen for yellow, and chilco (a wild fuschia) for purple.

The natural dyes are walnut for brown, Indigo for blue, cochineal (a bug) for red, lichen for yellow, and chilco (a wild fuschia) for purple.

Miguel took some of the wool he had carded and showed us how it is spun.

Miguel took some of the wool he had carded and showed us how it is spun.

It was easy to see that experience is essential to produce a uniform thread.

It was easy to see that experience is essential to produce a uniform thread.

Miguel learned to weave from his father starting at the age of 4. A close look at the wheel shows the age and simplicity of his tools. We wondered how much his tools or techniques have changed since he first learned his craft?

Miguel learned to weave from his father starting at the age of 4. A close look at the wheel shows the age and simplicity of his tools. We wondered how much his tools or techniques have changed since he first learned his craft?

Miguel weaves seated on a pillow placed on the floor. He uses the backstrap for tension in the piece he’s working on.

Miguel weaves seated on a pillow placed on the floor. He uses the backstrap for tension in the piece he’s working on.

When he had finished we spent some time in his garden, steps away from his workroom. We gladly accepted his invitation to see finished weavings in the Tahuantinsuyo Workshop. When you’ve met the artist, when you’ve seen what goes into producing a finished product from start to finish, then you appreciate the beautiful weavings even more.

Our friends, Jo and Louise, were with us, and we all knew that this was why we had come to Otavalo! We came to see indigenous crafts and (how lucky for us!) we had met a master. Now we would each find the perfect piece to take home. We knew we would be getting extraordinary works and a remembrance of a very kind and talented man who helped us learn a little about his craft.

 

June 2016

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Travelling to see some of the 4,000 species of orchids

For a small country, Ecuador is rich in bio-diversity – a strong selling point for a visit. 4,000 species of orchids can be found in Ecuador. Compare this to 200 species in the United States! When we arrived in Quito, we decided our first stop should be the Jardin Botanico de Quito to see some of the orchids.

We have seen few orchids in the US aside from inexpensive plants sold in nurseries and a few at Botanical Gardens. The color and size range was fairly limited so we never knew orchid flowers – like this one seen in Quito -- came in so many colors, sizes, and shapes.

We have seen few orchids in the US aside from inexpensive plants sold in nurseries and a few at Botanical Gardens. The color and size range was fairly limited so we never knew orchid flowers – like this one seen in Quito — came in so many colors, sizes, and shapes.

This orchid reminds me of rich chocolate (also grown in Ecuador).

This orchid reminds me of rich chocolate (also grown in Ecuador).

We thought of orchids as a single flower on a long stem. It was a surprise for us to see clusters like these.

We thought of orchids as a single flower on a long stem. It was a surprise for us to see clusters like these.

Our friend, Louise, helped us explore the greenhouses. The plants were nicely displayed, and none were the old, familiar species.

Our friend, Louise, helped us explore the greenhouses. The plants were nicely displayed, and none were the old, familiar species.

The ethereal, delicate quality appealed to us.

The ethereal, delicate quality appealed to us.

A minor disappointment was the lack of any identifying signage. While we’d love to grow this orchid – if only we knew its name – the reality is that it’s probably best suited to be grown only in an Ecuadorean-type climate.

A minor disappointment was the lack of any identifying signage. While we’d love to grow this orchid – if only we knew its name – the reality is that it’s probably best suited to be grown only in an Ecuadorean-type climate.

A surprising number of the flowers were quite small….

A surprising number of the flowers were quite small….

…or didn’t resemble our preconception of what an orchid looked like.

…or didn’t resemble our preconception of what an orchid looked like.

We had spent many happy hours looking at the orchids in the greenhouse and the wide range of botanical plants lining the adjacent garden paths. It’s amazing to think that here we were in Quito, virtually on the Equator, and in the Andean mountains at an elevation of over 9,000’. The many plants we saw thrived in an environment that is so very different from where we used to live.

After looking at the many new orchid species in Quito, we found ourselves quite taken with these beautiful flowers and will never think of orchids the same way again.

 

June 2016

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