Softly, softly, catch the monkey..

Seeing mammals in the rainforest is tricky. The easiest are probably monkeys, because many species travel in groups, and you can hear them coming.  But mostly you get just a glimpse as they move swiftly through the treetops, or leap acrobatically overhead to cross a trail or a stream. Magical, but not a long look. Here are the best photos I managed in Ecuador.

(A confession: from time to time Marcelo, our guide at Napo Wildlife Lodge, grabbed my camera and disappeared. Somehow, he always found a tiny gap in the foliage and managed to get the monkey shot I would never have got. I can’t always tell you which Napo monkey shots he took, and which were mine, but he really liked my camera!)

These are Black-mantled tamarins, at Wild Sumaco:

Black-mantled tamarin

And their Golden Mantled relative, near Napo Wildlife Lodge:

Golden-mantled tamarin
Golden-mantled tamarin

The most common monkeys around Napo (in the Amazon basin) were the Red Howler Monkeys. At dawn, the males set up the most evocative chorus drifting through the forest as the sun rises. The young one in this photo is nicely showing off his prehensile tail, something found only in New World monkeys. (Taken from a rocking boat, by me!).

Red howler monkeys

Also common were the squirrel monkeys (who don’t have prehensile tails)

Squirrel monkey

Finally, we saw one group of Woolly Monkeys. They need primary forest, and our lodge was in an area protected by the local Kichwa people from all hunting, development, and oil extraction, so we were lucky enough to see them. It is not clear that he was so happy to see us…

Woolly monkey

 

“Wake the serpent not…”

Wake the serpent not—lest he
Should not know the way to go,–
Let him crawl which yet lies sleeping
Through the deep grass of the meadow!
Not a bee shall hear him creeping,
Not a may-fly shall awaken
From its cradling blue-bell shaken,
Not the starlight as he’s sliding
Through the grass with silent gliding.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

On a narrow trail at Wild Sumaco lodge on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the guide behind me suddenly gasped. Unseen by me, a slender snake had apparently slithered right between my legs into the leaf litter. It was just showing, in a shadowy corner, so I took a rather bad photograph from a respectful distance:

False coral snake, which went right between my feet. With eggs??

At the time, we didn’t notice, being rather focussed on the snake itself, but there seem to be eggs next to it. Whether they are the snake’s own eggs, or those of something else, I have no idea.

My guide then took a long stick, and gently moved away some leaves, and the snake emerged into daylight, allowing us to see its startling coloring, and changed its demeanor entirely, swaying its head side-to-side in a positively cobra-like manner:

False coral snake, which went right between my feet. With eggs??

Back at the lodge (by a different route!), we tried to identify it. The reassuring consensus was that it was a false coral snake, non-venomous. More specifically, the best match I can find is Lampropeltis triangulum, one of the milksnakes, though the yellow band across the back of the head is not typical (most of them have a whitish band). They are oviparous, so that fits too.

The coloration is an example of Batesian mimicry: with their spectacularly vvid coloring, they aim to deceive potential predators into confusing them with the truly poisonous Coral Snakes.

 

Back-to-front

As you know, I like looking at creatures from every angle, bottom as well as top. This tiny butterfly when its wings are open has those astonishing iridescent morpho-blue stripes, something almost impossible to capture on camera. If you look closely, there is tantalizing glimpse of a rather different-colored underside:

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And when it closes its wings, a entirely new butterfly appears:

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I found it hard to believe that these were the same butterfly, but they are. The guides call it the “89” butterfly, though its real name is Diaethria clymena, a type of Brushfoot.

Backs are not always a good clue to fronts either. All these photos are the same bird, the Masked Trogon, common in the cloud forests on the lower slopes of the Andes. From the back, the female (here feeding a moth to her young fledgling, just visible behind her) is a mousy brown color, not very exciting.

Female Masked Trogon, feeding young a moth

But then she flicks her tail:

Female masked trogon

And turns around:

Female Masked Trogon

As for her partner, as usual he is even flashier. Handsome from behind in a fairly restrained kind of way:

Male masked trogon.

But altogether brasher from the front:

Male masked trogon.

Especially when he puffs up his chest to impress the girls.

Male masked trogon.

Survival in the equatorial cold

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is exactly on the equator (the name of the country rather gives the game away). But near where the bears live, at over 14,000 feet, it is much colder (Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental US, is 14,500 feet).

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The plant life has evolved for this unusual combination of very strong sun, but high altitude. They are often low to the ground, and many are spiky, succulent, almost plasticky cushion-plants, forming great mounds in which the growing medium for the living plant is its ancestors’ decayed foliage underneath:

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To my eyes most of them were completely new, so when there was a lull in the bear hunt I pointed my camera at the leaf patterns and the flowers instead:

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And this tiny gentian:

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At slightly lower altitude there was also a rich, still unfamiliar, but rather different flora, but more on that another time.

Is it a pig, or an elephant?

No, it’s more closely related to a horse…

We were watching a salt lick at Napo Wildife Lodge in the Amazon Basin, waiting for the parrots to descend, and instead we were incredibly lucky to get a front-row viewing of a young male tapir.

Tapir

Like the parrots, they need the minerals in the clay, especially sodium, to supplement their diet of leaves, shoots and fruit. He stayed for a long time (despite being aware of our presence) the size of a small pony, and apparently not yet full grown.  They have a mournful face, with a long floppy proboscis made of their nose and lips, and a fleshy crest running from the top of the head back to the shoulders.

Tapir

And a very pink tongue.

Tapir

The Quichua guides who helped us find bears also help a biologist to collar tapirs (the mountain tapirs are slightly smaller), and Rodrigo proudly showed me this photo:

Tapir

PS: The flock of parrots never came, because a hawk came down and took one, and spooked the rest. But watch this space for a different salt lick.

Fantastic Mr Fox

I seem to be stuck on children’s book themes, first Paddington and now Roald Dahl…

In the same area as the Spectacled Bears there are these beautiful foxes:

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Called the Paramo Fox by my guide, they are the local variant of the Andean Fox, or Culpeo. The Latin name is Lycalopex culpaeus. These two hang around the ranger’s station at the park, and are unusually tame, which is why I got good photos!

Foxes interest me, because although they all look very similar, they are only very distantly  related to each other. For example, in Maine we have the Gray Fox, Latin name Urocyon cinereoargenteus:

mother and four cubs 007

This one raised five kits under my porch one summer. Rather astonishingly, the Gray Fox climbs trees:

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Foxes are all canids, and have evolved to fill very similar niches in their local environments, but they belong to different genera, so that the red fox of the UK is Vulpes vulpes, different again from the two above.

The spectacular Spectacled Bear

I try to keep my posts short, but this one is longer than usual. I have just returned from Ecuador, having seen some beautiful, fascinating natural wonders, so there will be a series of posts as I organize my photos and my thoughts.

The main driving force behind my itinerary was my desire to see a Spectacled Bear, otherwise known as Paddington, who lives in both “darkest Peru” and darkest Ecuador, being no respecter of national borders. Rather than keeping you in suspense, let me tell you that I found one (actually seven):

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So here is the story. They live high in the Paramo climate zone of the Andes, in this case at 4,300 meters, or 14,500 feet, in the Papallacta Pass in Cayambe-Coca National Park. There is a road through the middle of the park:

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But other than that it is gloriously wild, with a few gravel roads, and the very occasional trail:

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The park ranger hadn’t seen any bears that day:

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But over the course of three days with the help of my guide Andrea, and local Quichua guide Rodrigo (at left) and his father and brother we found them. (Despite their solemn faces, they were actually a cheerful, smily family, and very good at finding bears!)

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Only one was close enough to photograph; the others I saw through binoculars or indeed Andrea’s scope, including the highlight, a mother and two tiny cubs, the mother with perfect spectacle-shaped face markings.

The bears’ favorite food is a type of spiky bromeliad, which they eat just like we eat artichokes, discarding the leaves and going for the soft centre, which also contains their favorite grub.

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Getting closer to the bears is very hard because the terrain is composed of huge thigh-high clumps of grass, with no space between for your feet. It is steep, and you gasp for breath every few minutes because of the altitude.

 

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But Andrea spotted this young male bear, who moved out of the open into a clump of trees, but then he emerged on top of one eating the berries, and stayed there, watching us closely, as we trekked through the grasses to get a closer look.

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So I succeeded in my mission,  and can tell my grandson that I took Paddington to visit his family in South America.

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Also hunting for the bears were two young German wildlife film-makers, who had not got a single shot in 8 days before we arrived. I am glad to say they eventually caught up with the mother and cubs and apparently got some footage, but meanwhile they left their hat on their tripod, and so Paddington indeed seems to have come back home… (thanks to Andrea for noticing this, and for the photo!).

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