Amazonian Ecuador – Napo Wildlife Centre

Our canoe journey to Napo Wildlife Centre was eventful. We delayed our departure as the varzea forest we would be travelling through can be very productive and by the time we set off the rain had stopped and activity levels were high in the late afternoon. Good views were obtained of Spix’s Guan and Blue-throated Piping Guan, Crane Hawk and White-shouldered Antbird when Jonás picked out an interesting Jacamar like call. It came from an Amazonian Royal Flycatcher which we found fairly quickly, perched low down in the vegetation along the side of the channel. As ever in canoes it was awkward as the bird came in to view and was then lost again depending on where you were sitting as the boat drifted but the bird was tolerant and we all got to see it well. Our guide Jorge has been at the lodge for over ten years had not seen this species there before, though he had heard it a few times. Shortly after this a Chestnut-capped Puffbird was picked out on call and gave us a very hard time before Jonás found it and again we were treated to excellent views of a difficult and good looking species.

Chestnut-capped Puffbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

As the light began fading we found an Agami Heron then a Zigzag Heron. The latter had been a new species for me the previous year and though I had seen two they were both spotlighted whereas this one was originally viewable in natural light, under the vegetation where it performed weird dancing movements around a fallen log. It crossed the channel and we then got the more typical views of it perched up but I preferred the original encounter in many ways. Numerous Boat-billed Herons and a roosting Sungrebe enlivened the final stage of the journey.

Sungrebe.

It is difficult to explain the view which greeted us when we arrived at the lagoon on the edge of which the lodge stands. Most of these lodges are pretty staggering, given their locations in the depths of the Amazon, but NWC has a tower rising from the dining area which is lit at night creating the most amazing spectacle as you approach across the lake.

I was pleased to minimise nervous anticipation by getting straight on to the ‘tiputini’ trail in the Yasuni National Park the following morning. We had to move fast to begin with if we were to reach our primary destination in time but picked up a few birds en-route including Lawrence’s Thrush and Golden-headed Manakin. Arriving at the lekking area for Black-necked Red Cotinga we soon heard the explosive advertising calls of the males. Over the next hour or so we watched the birds at fairly close ranges and they are among the most spectacular I have seen anywhere in the world. Leks in Ecuador and Peru are fairly stable but those in Brazil appear to be more mobile in nature, the key determinant everywhere being resource availability. There are not very many ‘accessible’ sites at which the species can be seen and it is in my estimation one of the best birds in the Amazon. The posture is designed to show off the red rump to maximum effect and I commented on how short the wings were. I subsequently discovered that the primaries are modified structurally for use in display. Many sub-oscines, which have comparatively simple vocal apparatus, produce peculiar sounds during display using modified feathers.

Black-necked Red Cotinga. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

A Sapphire Quail-Dove could not be coaxed in to view but as is often the case playing a recording of one species yielded another, in this a case a superb Banded Antbird which gave even better views than the only one I had seen previously when it flew up on to a branch right next to us.

Banded Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Other species recorded over the course of the morning included Red-stained and Chestnut Woodpecker, Speckled Spinetail, Yasuni, Rufous-tailed, Plain-throated, Grey , Long-winged and White-flanked Antwrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-eyed Tody-tyrant, Greyish Mourner, Citron-bellied Attila, Screaming Piha and Blue-backed Manakin. A Black-faced Antthrush was uncooperative but I did see it whilst I think Jonás was the only person to glimpse a group of Grey-winged Trumpeters which were on the wrong side of a gulley for us. A few people got on to a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager but I was not unfortunately one of them. A peculiar encounter was with a group of King Vultures sitting low down in the forest where they converged on the carcass of a stingray. A final surprise was a female  Lunulated Antbird sitting right by the trail.

Lunulated Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was a long day and we had little time left so repaired to the tower at the lodge where various parrots were passing by and we had our only sighting of the Giant Otters in the lagoon.

First light on day two found us up another canopy tower.

It was a misty morning and a quiet one but a Bare-necked Fruitcrow was feeding a nestling in the tree and I took the opportunity to make some notes as I guessed data on the species nesting habits would be limited. It turned out I was correct and the notes have formed the basis of a short note which has been accepted for publication in an on-line journal run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Bare-necked Fruitcrow. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Moving on to the famous parrot lick the stars of the show were a number of Orange-cheeked Parrots.

Orange-cheeked Parrot. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

An afternoon boat trip secured a few more species typically or often found in varzea including Reddish Hermit, Amazonian Streaked Antwren, Yellow-crowned Elaenia and Cinnamon Attila.

Amazonian Streaked Antwren. Banded Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

We left in darkness the next morning to reach a section of the channel Jorge had recommended as a good spot for Salvin’s Currasow and almost unbelievably discovered a party of four right out on the exposed bank at super close range!

Salvin’s Currasow. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was a stunning end to the Amazonina leg of the tour and the absolute and final hurrah was a Black-spotted Bare-eye which showed fairly well once lured to the edge of the channel.

Napo Wildlife Centre is superb in every way and the guides are truly outstanding. It is expensive but then so are all the Amazonian lodges and NWC is community run so you do at least know that your money is going to local people who, as a consequence, have every reason to protect the forest rather than exploit in destructive ways. I would recommend it to anyone without reservation.

Amazonian Ecuador – La Selva

La Selva was one of the earliest lodges in Amazonian Ecuador and for a long time pretty much the place to go. The high cost of staying there was always an issue and few serious birders appear to visit these days. The lodge is very plush and comfortable with an excellent network of trails and good guides. We used La Selva as our base for birding the N bank of the Rio Napo and some of the nearby river islands.

Our journey in was quiet in the mid day heat but the river has changed considerably since my last visit. Expansion of oil extraction operations has left the Napo looking a much busier river than the one I remember with working vessels and high speed water taxis moving between numerous settlements around which forest clearance is all to evident. There seemed, unsurprisingly, to be far fewer birds along the banks of the river and island shorelines.

Large-billed Tern, Rio Napo.

A short canoe ride from the river edge to the lodge yielded Black-tailed and Green-backed Trogons, White-chinned Jacamar, Long-billed Woodcreeper and Hauxwell’s Thrush. A late boat trip around the lagoon was  abandoned as heavy rain set in but from the lodge balcony we had good views of one of the key target species, Orange-crested Manakin. Watching the day roosting Sand-coloured NIghthawks in the trees below the balcony was another classic La Selva experience.

Sand-coloured Nighthawk, La Selva.

Another resident around the decking was the bizarre folivorous Hoatzin.

Hoatzin, La Selva.

Early the following morning we had our first failed attempt for Zigzag Heron before carrying on to search for a La Selva speciality, Cocha Antshrike. They didn’t give themselves up easily but we secured good views of a female, the more distinctive of the sexes and brief views of a male.

Cocha Antshrike F, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

On our way out we had superb views of the spectacular Fulvous Antshrike, a difficult bird to see well but our return journey was frustrating with brief views of Spot-winged Antbird, even briefer glimpses of Black-tailed Leaftosser and a party of Marbled Wood Quails flushed from the front of the line and thus only really seen by the leaders. Eventually we  encountered a pair of Sooty Antbirds which performed well and a Black-faced Antbird followed by a mixed flock which contained Plain-throated, Grey, White-flanked and Rio Suno Antwrens as well an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. The afternoon was sweltering and the forest still but we nonetheless managed to track down a Collared Puffbird, a couple of Purplish Jacamars and a superb male Wire-tailed Manakin, my first and unsurprisingly a target species for me. An afternoon session on the canopy tower was also a little slow but yielded another target species of mine. Like the manakin Plum-throated Cotinga is not a big rarity but it is spectacular and a bird I was desperate to see. It didn’t disappoint, the colours of the plumage among the most vivid I have ever witnessed. It turned out to be the only one we connected with on the trip. Other birds seen from the tower included Golden-collared Toucanet, Grey-headed Kite, Laughing Falcon, Blue-and Yellow Macaw, Yellow-crowned Amazon and Black-faced Dacnis.

Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, La Selva.

The next morning we returned to the same tower where highlights included Bat Falcon, Ivory-billed and Many-banded Aracaris, Ringed Woodpecker and Black-headed Parrot.

Many-banded Aracari, La Selva.

Ringed Woodpecker, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Descending we discovered a Rusty-belted Tapaculo singing close to the trail and Jonás quickly found an appropriate log and lured the bird in to view. This was another target species of mine and whilst I knew the drill it was still pretty remarkable to see the bird hop on to the designated log right on cue. Two more of my targets followed in rapid succession, a Brown Nunlet and a superb Chestnut-belted Gnateater. I then got better views than I had previously had of Spix’s Guan. A big personal blow followed when I moved away from the group to get an angle on something and missed a Reddish-winged Bare-eye in the process. The mornings successes left me just about able to remain philosophical about this (an occupational hazard of rain forest birding after all) and we picked up a day roosting Tawny-bellied Screech Owl on the way back to the lodge. After lunch a Brown Jacamar was a nice detour along the banks of the Napo en-route to an old stage river island where progress was difficult but excellent views of Castelnau’s Antshrike were obtained along with a few Orange-headed Tanagers. For the second evening running a Kinkajou disrupted dinner as it foraged in the trees immediately alongside the balcony.

Kinkajou, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

We left La Selva the following morning getting excellent views of an Agami Heron on our way, a bird I had previously only seen in immature plumage. As we arrived at our first destination, an early stage river island, the heavens opened on us. Torrential rain continued for the entire morning but we soldiered on heroically, eventually scrapping together a list that included Olive-spotted Hummingbird, White-bellied and Parker’s Spinetails and the appropriately named Drab Water Tyrant. A Grey-breasted Crake came frustratingly close but refused to budge further leaving me grateful I had seen this species well in Brazil just a year previously. We finally abandoned the mission and repaired for lunch before moving on to our second base of operations on the S bank.

Ecuador 7. Gareno.

Gareno is a superb birding locality in terra firme forest on the S bank of the Rio Napo which can be reached with comparative ease, only the last hour or so of the drive being along dirt road. The lodge is nowadays run on an ad. hoc. basis and only opened when there are guests. This is a big shame because it means staying there, which is basic but fundamentally OK is rather unpredictable. During our stay there was no water in the rooms which was no big issue as we only stayed one night and it is situated on a river but gives some idea of how things are there. It is also difficult to contact anyone there as far as I can tell. In my old age I would prefer a things a little easier were I to visit independently but I would be seriously tempted as the birding is fantastic.

Gareno was included on our itinerary principally to go after two species. It delivered quite a few bonuses in our all too short a time there. We arrived around three on a baking hot afternoon and whilst one of the guides from the lodge went in search of our main quarry we birded the roadside. It was very quiet and whilst we searched for our other main target species at a site which has previously held it I noticed a small amount of activity in the canopy some distance along the road. Some activity was better than no activity and we wandered up to check things out. After a short while working through the few birds we could see Martin began describing something which sounded very much like one species I had in the back of my mind all along, Purple-throated Cotinga. Jonás was thinking the same way and just as we got on to it the bird flew across the road giving good though frustratingly brief views. Among the other birds we dug out of the afternoon heat were Grey-breasted Sabrewing, Dugand’s Antwren and Yellow-backed Tanager. After an hour or so our guide returned with the news that he had located a day roosting Rufous Potoo. It was just a few minutes walk in to the forest and the light was fairly good as we watched the bird which was perched low down and swaying occasionally to mimic the motion of a dead leaf. It appears to be a genuine rarity though its preference for remaining in the forest interior will make it particularly difficult to locate unless vocal. It is certainly a stunning looking bird.

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Rufous Potoo, Gareno. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Our key target species in the bag we retired to the lodge to sort out rooms etc. A dusk excursion in to the forest failed to find Ocellated Poorwill and as we walked back through the gardens a low booming call in the distance was quickly identified by Jonás as that of Nocturnal Currasow! The guides reckoned they were in an inaccessible area which was frustrating but it was something to hear them and they called periodically throughout the night, audible from the cabins. The following morning our second big target species, the stunning Firey Topaz  was secured in the garden by the river. It was hard work getting views which allowed for appreciation of the glowing colours as the birds fed on insects which they caught in the air leaving them silhouetted. As they descended it was possible to see the colours against the green of the background foliage and eventually one perched up a couple of times though it didn’t allow too much time for admiration. A pair of Lemon-throated Barbets had provided distraction whilst we waited but once the Topaz show was over we headed for the road again. As we clambered out of the gulley notable inhabitants of the understorey were a very smart Yellow-browed Antbird and a flock of Fulvous-crested Tanagers

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Fulvous-crested Tanager, Gareno. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

The road was productive again with excellent views of a pair of Purple-throated Cotingas, a pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows and a White-browed Purpletuft among the highlights and a supporting cast that included Ivory-billed and Many-banded Aracaris, White-throated Toucan, Grey Antbird, Opal-crowned and Yellow-bellied Tanagers. Back near the lodge the guides had found a day roosting Crested Owl which was low down, allowing better views than I had previously had of this spectacular species and understandably popular with those who had not encountered it before.

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Crested Owl, Gareno. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Good birds kept coming to the very end of our stay with a fruiting tree along the short walk back to the lodge attended by Brown-winged Schiffornis, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin Blue-crowned, White-bearded and a stunning Western Striped Manakin.

Gareno is run by the Huaorani Indians and was once popular with visiting birders as a pair of Harpy Eagles nested there. Since then it appears visitor numbers have fallen away. This is a great shame as the birding is outstanding and the forest is being degraded. The road in is an oil road and there are checkpoints to prevent settlement on Huaorani land by outsiders. It appears however that settlement is nonetheless taking place. An upgrade of the lodge would I imagine bring in revenue for the Huaorani and focus attention on the forest and what happens there. It may not be unique but how many places can there be where visiting birders can listen to Nocturnal Currasow from their bed?

Ecuador 6. Wild Sumaco

Our first destination on the E slope was the excellent Wild Sumaco Lodge. On my first trip to Ecuador there were no easily accessible birding localities in the foothills of the E slope so I was looking forward to our time here as the forests around Wild Sumaco are home to a number of localised birds which can be searched for from a great trail network. We discovered on arrival that the forests had gone comparatively quiet over the previous couple of weeks but we still managed to dig out some great birds during our two and a half day stay.

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The view from the balcony at Wild Sumaco with Antisana in the distance.

Numerous good birds can be seen around the lodge itself and among the selection of hummingbirds were such spectacular species as Rufous-vented Whitetip, Napo Sabrewing, Gould’s Jewelfront and Wire-crested Thorntail.

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Wire-crested Thorntail, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Among the birds I was particularly pleased to see along the roadside were Golden-collared Toucanet, Bronze-green Euphonia, Golden-collared Honeycreeper and Orange-eared Tanager whilst the fruiting trees also attracted a pair of Pale-eyed Thrushes and migrant Swainson’s Thrushes were much in evidence. Much of our time was devoted to a long trail network which over two and a half days yielded some great birds. A pair of day roosting Band-bellied Owls were found by one of the bird guides at the lodge and by going in carefully and one at a time we were all able to get great views of these magnificent birds without disturbing them.

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Band-bellied Owl, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Among the Thamnophilidae Foothill and Yellow-breasted Antwrens, Blackish, Common Scale-backed and Spot-backed Antbirds were notable but the undisputed highlight was excellent views of the uncommon and super-attractive White-streaked Antvireo.

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White-streaked Antvireo, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Firey-throated Fruiteater had to be somewhere among all these fruiting trees and in the end Herman found a male but couldn’t get us on to it before it flew to a position right above us where only Jonás managed a brief view. He subsequently found a female but it was no more co-operative, the views again brief and I again in the wrong place. I was however fortunate in being at the front of the line when Jonas picked up a Short-tailed Antthrush walking calmly but quickly through the dappled light of the forest floor. Further heroic efforts by Jonás did eventually secure good views of another scarce cotingid which is something of a local speciality at Sumaco, Grey tailed Piha. We also saw several stunning male Blue-rumped Manakins. Other species worthy of mention include Ecuadorian Piedtail, Northern White-crowned Tapaculo, Foothill Elaenia, Yellow-cheeked Becard, Rufous-naped and Olivaceous Greenlets. For those of us who had not seen one before one of the most appreciated encounters along the trails was with a White-tipped Sicklebill. Sicklebills are not so much rare as difficult to see as they principally feed whilst perched, which may afford good viewing opportunities but their visits to given blooms can be brief and once they have landed the birds are somewhat unobtrusive.

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White-tipped Sicklebill, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

The other notable feature of birding at Wild Sumaco is the feeding station where the star of the show is Plain-backed Antpitta, reputedly one of the hardest species to see by normal means. I was fortunate enough to find one at Mindo when I first visited Ecuador but that was many years ago and I certainly did not get to watch it for a protracted period. At Sumaco a pair had clearly nested nearby and were busy snaffling up as many of the worms as possible before bouncing off to feed young. We were concerned that there would be no food left for any other birds but eventually the other regular species did come in. Ochre-breasted Antpitta is another species I have seen at Mindo but the race occurring there is the W slope form, named after the town. I saw it a couple of times there and watched one for a while but never saw them feed and was surprised by the brightness of the underwing coverts which are exposed when it flicks from side to side as it dispatches its prey. Angel famously christened one of his habituated birds Shakira after the Colombian pop star and her hip-wiggling dance moves. Periodically other species turn up and we were fortunate in that a Spotted Nightingale Thrush was appearing during our stay, though unfortunate that a Short-tailed Antthrush had recently departed.

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Spotted Nightingale Thrush, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

A good E slope bird discovered whilst we waited at the feeding station was a Black-streaked Puffbird, a representative of another of my favourite groups.

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Black-streaked Puffbird, Wild Sumaco. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

During our final afternoon I elected to stay at the feeding station in the hope the antthrush might return but most of the group were successful in an excursion to track down Blackish Rail, a species I had a least seen before at Rio Bombuscaro, lower down on the E slope. Stopping briefly in a rather denuded area as we left Sumaco I was pleased to get my first super close and unobscured views of Wing-banded Wren as well as picking up a Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. White-tailed Hillstar was added to the list during a roadside stop and then it was time to head for the Amazon.

 

Ecuador 5. La Reunion Road & Chical Road

Waiting at the jetty after our boat trip out from Playa del Oro additions to the list included a Black Hawk Eagle and a Tennessee Warbler, a scarce migrant in Ecuador. Moving on to Humedal de Yalaré which still holds some good birds but has been significantly degraded in recent years White-necked, Pied and Black-breasted Puffbirds were found in rapid succession whilst a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogon were the first and last we would see on the tour.

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Slaty-tailed Trogon, Humadal de Yalaré. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

After lunch a brief stop at a site Juan Carlos knows for Golden-chested Tanager was successful though the birds remained distant and we pushed on for our first birding session along the La Reunion Road. As is so often the case the road affording access to the forest (which runs to a village) has facilitated its partial destruction and the experience is thus a bittersweet one. Logs had been used to line the muddy road in sections and we were unable to travel all that far with the time at our disposal. Degradation along the roadside edges makes for excellent viewing in to the mid and higher levels and notable among the residents of these on our first outing were Chocó Trogon, Chocó Woodpecker (the first time the species was recorded on a Birdquest tour) and a Black-tipped Cotinga low down in a roadside tree, the latter species generally seen (by visiting birders at least) at extreme range from miradors.

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Chocó Trogon, La Reunion Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

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Black-tipped Cotinga, La Reunion Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Emerald Tanager and close up views of Golden-chested Tanager were among the other highlights along with a much appreciated Brown-billed Scythebill which performed well. For ground strata skulkers it would be necessary to find a trail in but we did manage good views of a Chocó Tapaculo in a roadside gulley.

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Chocó Tapaculo, La Reunion Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Hearing a Rufous-crowned Pittasoma the following morning was not nearly so frustrating as it might have been a few days earlier but it was annoying not to have any real chance with a Black-headed Antthrush. Birding trails in that forest (if any exist or are accessible) would clearly be as exciting as it would difficult. Close views of some Rose-faced Parrots perched was a relief after a couple of high speed fly pasts here and at Playa del Oro whilst another Chocó endemic and another first for Birdquest was a Yellow-green Bush Tanager.

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Yellow-green Bush Tanager, La Reunion Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

The previous afternoon a Tooth-billed Hummingbird found by Jonas had visited a roadside flower with such speed that nobody else really got any kind of view and so we headed back to the location as the species is a trap-liner and should return. We were somewhat short of time and thus delighted when the bird zipped in to feed for just long enough that we all had pretty good views.

Our next stop was along the Chical Road and this one at least has yet to lead to systematic stripping of the forest at the higher elevations, though clearance for agriculture is apparent. It is this feature which perhaps makes it the best locality to see another famously difficult Chocó endemic. Hoary Puffleg is a hummingbird of the forest interior which, whilst it is very occasionally seen in more open edge habitat has yet to succumb to the lure of the nectar feeders. Along a particular section of the Chical Road  it can be found using partially cleared areas making it far easier to see.

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Hoary Puffleg, Chical Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

We saw two or three in an hour or so along with three superb Purplish-mantled Tanagers which were also easily found and another Chocó endemic which has become difficult elsewhere in recent years, the appropriately named Beautiful Jay.

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Beautiful Jay, Chical Road. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

That was the end of our time on the W slope, it was all too brief but a spectacular success given that.

The Bonaparte’s Gull at Farmoor

On Saturday evening whilst doing the Draycote roost John Judge suggested it was about time he/we went to have look at the 1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull which has now been present for some time at Farmoor in Oxfordshire. Dan Watson had called that same evening keen to get out of the county and ‘actually see something’ the next day, so after work on Sunday instead of taking the sensible course of action and going home to deal with paperwork, I drove over to Dan’s and picked up a lift to Farmoor. I’m so pleased I did as the bird was constantly on view for the two or three hours we spent there and very close in the entire time. The Bonaparte’s spent much of its time gleaning insects from the surface but was also catching numerous fish.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

This behaviour was not lost on the Black-headed Gulls present which took to trying to steal a meal, providing ample opportunities to compare the two species. Whilst the quality of the following two images is poor they are worth including for illustrative purposes. Though the size difference is perhaps exaggerated here by the ‘flattened’ posture adopted by the Bonaparte’s, one which interestingly it seemed to utilise when being defensive and aggressive (which it was with surprising frequency given its smaller size and weight), it is nonetheless remarkable. As a result of these aggressive encounters the bird was vocal too, the peculiar high-pitched tern like call quite distinct from that of any gull regularly encountered in the UK. When no other birds were available for size comparison the tiny, short narrow bill was distinctive. Though the Bonaparte’s is at a poor angle in the shot below the darker tertials are obvious.

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1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull and 1st W/S Black-headed Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

The cleaner inner upper-wing of the Bonaparte’s is well illustrated here, the narrower, neater darker trailing edge and carpal bar and cleaner inner primaries combining to create a distinctive appearance. Black-head Gull of the same age typically shows a more extensive and more diffuse trailing edge to the wing and more extensive white in the primaries and outer greater primary-coverts resulting in a larger, cleaner white ‘wedge’ along the outer forewing.

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1st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull and 1st W/S Black-headed Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Photos taken at closer range and with more time to steady the camera show the spread wing pattern well. The clean underwing lacks the dark grey primaries typical of Black-headed Gull of the same age (see previous flight shot) but Malling-Olsen and the Collins Guide both warn of the potential for worn individuals to show rather translucent primaries (a photo of such a bird can be found in Gulls). These authors also point out that 1st W/S birds may be slightly smaller and I have certainly seen ‘runt’ Black-headed Gulls a few times in the Draycote roost and one bird with translucent primaries which gave me a scare during brief views at extreme range.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

The greater primary-coverts show an inverse pattern to that of Black-headed Gull in that they have dark bases to the outers but are otherwise pale whilst Black-headed Gull typically has white outers and dark centres to the inners.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

On the water the dark bill and extensive grey on the hind-neck and upper breast sides were obvious features but would be far harder to be sure of at range and in the failing light of a gull roost. Having said that we had originally gone to the wrong place and when Dan first picked the bird up across the width of the reservoir in the heat shimmer the latter feature was just about discernible. Black-headed Gull can show something similar and though typically less obvious in that species I have found its appearance exaggerated in poor light. The ear spot was also very neat and only a minority of Bonaparte’s Gull will develop a (blackish) hood in their first summer.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

There was no sign of tail moult although the extremely long tail-coverts overlaid the central tail feathers and sometimes gave the impression of replaced feathers.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Finally, and for no reason other than the fact that it was so pretty here are a couple more photos, long shots with a bit of background for ‘mood’.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

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1 st W/S Bonaparte’s Gull, Farmoor Reservoir.

Ecuador 4. Playa del Oro (in to the Chocó Lowlands)

Leaving Mashpi a long drive followed by a fairly short boat journey finally brought us to Playa del Oro just before darkness descended. Playa del Oro is the premier accessible birding locality in the Ecuadorian Chocó lowlands but is still somewhat remote compared to many sites in the country. Located at the edge of the largely uninhabited Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, Playa del Oro is precisely the kind of forest locality I love in that it is undisturbed and extensive.

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Tigrillo Lodge is basic but comfortable and surrounded by excellent habitat with many of the areas best birds occurring close by. Our first morning began with a pre-dawn excursion of no more than a few hundred metres to see Chocó Poorwill. This  was one of my favourite caprimulgids of the entire trip, the dark plumage serving to highlight the conspicuous white spots on the wing-coverts. This species was formerly considered conspecific with Ocellated Poorwill and both are forest dwellers but Chocó Poorwill will vocalise close to the forest edge which is helpful when trying to track one down. This individual was clearly audible from the lodge every morning during our stay.

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Chocó Poorwill. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

In the lodge garden there is a tree at the top of the slope leading down to the jetty which, when fruiting, can attract some spectacular visitors. We were fortunate enough to discover after breakfast that it was fully in fruit and a steady procession of birds were moving in and out of the canopy. That the best of these on our first morning was a stunning male Blue Cotinga gives some idea of just how remarkable and exciting is the birding at Playa del Oro. It was time to head for the trails and we boarded the boat full of anticipation soon to be realised.

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We began our exploration of the trail system on the famous Cascada Trail and one of the first local speciality birds we encountered was one I had long wanted to see, Stub-tailed Antbird. We enjoyed great views of a singing male at close range.

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Stub-tailed Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Spotted and Bicoloured Antbirds followed but Ocellated Antbird was uncooperative and only a couple of people managed glimpses. This was however the only real disappointment of the morning and we soon tracked down our first Sapayoa. I am not a family collector but I do love many of the sub-oscine passerines especially cotingas and manakins, originally developing an interest in Sapayoa as it was formerly placed in the latter group. Recent work has now decreed that it belongs in a monogeneric family and its closest relatives are the Old World broadbills, another favourite group of mine. Thus, dull as it is, I was pretty keen to see it. Playa del Oro is arguably the most reliable site in the world for Sapayoa which is fairly common there and we saw three that morning. The photo below illustrates the feature which contributed to the species former common name and hinted at its then unknown affinities, Broad-billed Sapayoa.

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Sapayoa. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Stripe-throated Wren and Lemon-spectacled Tanager were also picked up in the flock before we moved on to a mirador for lunch.

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We secured our primary target here with distant views of  three Black-tipped Cotingas and a spectacular bonus in the form of a group of five Great Green Macaws. This species is rare in Ecuador where it is restricted to the W slope and I was particularly pleased to see it as whilst serving as Conservation Officer of the Neotropical Bird Club I awarded a small parcel grant to an environmental education project dedicated to protecting Great Green Macaw in the country. Another good find here was a showy Rufous Piha. Birding the canopy along the ridge was hard work and we craned our necks at horribly acute angles as birds flitted rapidly from tree to tree. The rewards were however great and chief among them were the Chocó endemic and super attractive Scarlet-and-White and Blue-whiskered Tanagers. Other good birds seen over the course of the afternoon included Cinnamon Woodpecker, Gartered Trogon, Yellow-margined and Pacific Flatbills, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-browed and  Rufous-winged Tanagers and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. Chief culprit among the ‘neck breakers’ was a spectacularly difficult Five-coloured Barbet whilst among the avian highlights of the lower strata were Checker-throated Antwren, Southern Nightingale Wren, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Dusky-faced and Tawny-crested Tanagers.

During the pre-breakfast walk on day two a torch beam picked up a pale grey lump which turned out to be a vent on view of a roosting Great Tinamou, a species I had previously seen but nowhere near as well as this.

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Great Tinamou. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Post-breakfast the vigil at the fruiting tree produced both sexes of Scarlet-bellied Dacnis, another stunning looking Chocó endemic for which Playa del Oro is renowned and which I had been desperate to see. Another W slope bird new to me in the garden that morning was Purple-crowned Fairy. Back in the forest and starting the trail from the other end one of the first really good birds we encountered was another I had been hoping for, Green Manakin. I kind of like the odd dull representative of otherwise colourful groups, though of course female manakins are dull and present the challenge in identifying Green Manakin. On the W slope the only form occurring is litae which is duller and even harder to identify accurately. Larger and longer tailed than females of other manakin species Green Manakin has a pale yellow central belly not shown by Sapayoa. We had gone in from the other end of the trail to try again for the Five-coloured Barbet which performed marginally better this time around. Lita Woodpecker, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Western Woodhaunter, Black-crowned Antshrike, White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons were among the best of the birds found during the walk. We added Moustached Antwren and Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant to the list before heavy rain stopped play early in the afternoon. The downpour left everything so wet we opted for a boat ride the key encounter on which was a frustrating one involving the boat men picking out a small party of guans which dropped out of a riverside cecropia before we could get any kind of a look at them. Luckily the rain had stopped before the planned evening excursion on the loop trail behind the lodge. Juan Carlos Cavalchi who had joined us as a second guide for this section of the tour had a trick up his sleeve for securing views of our target species, Streak-chested Antpitta. It involves luring one in at dusk and then spotlighting it. Our bird responded enthusiastically enough but circled for some time and when it eventually settled right in front of us remained blocked from view. It was now dark and the bird went silent. I thought we had cashed in our chips but I hadn’t reckoned on the skill of Juan Carlos who correctly guessed the bird had dropped down to roost and stepping in to the forest quickly found it.

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Streak-chested Antpitta. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

So ended the second of our days at Playa del Oro, nowhere near long enough but we did spectacularly well with them.

It seems a shame the Tigrillo Lodge which is run by local villagers does not get more visitors. It is a little basic but a great place to stay and the food is good. It really is a premier birding destination and given the popularity of family collecting and the relative ease with which Sapayoa can be found there it would perhaps be an idea to rename it Sapayoa Lodge and develop a marketing strategy designed to attract birdwatchers. Other eco-tourism initiatives could then follow on. It strikes me as critical for Playa del Oro, the forests of the W slope already largely lost and the people of the area somewhat remote from the capital and the regular tourist routes incorporating the high Andes and Amazon. Over exploitation of the W slope based on unsustainable agriculture has done untold damage but the people have to make a living and the brutal truth is that in the absence of an alternative and sustainable economic model the destruction is likely to continue. Places like the Tigrillo Lodge are the best hope the lowland forests of the Chocó have.

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Early Spring in the Leam Valley

It has been pretty good by local standards of late so I am punctuating the Ecuador posts with a Leam Valley round-up. My first good bird of the season came courtesy of a Dunchurch resident who called excitedly on the morning of 28/03 to tell me he had seen a Black Redstart in his garden. The bird had gone but I guessed it may not have gone far and dropped by after work to have a look. It appeared on a rooftop a few doors along from its original address and performed well in the sunshine for about an hour or so before disappearing when cloud cover set in. By that time I had spoken to most of the residents in the small cul-de-sac and whilst they were not unhappy once they knew what I was up to they were not willing for the news to be  made publicly available. In any event the bird was not seen subsequently.

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M Black Redstart, Dunchurch.

An evenings birding along Farborough Bank at Draycote Water paid off on the evening of 30/03 with a Rock Pipit exhibiting a greyish head and mantle, clean underparts with a pale buff wash and extensive whitish edges to the outer tail feathers typical of the Scandanvian form littoralis.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

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Rock Pipit, A.p.littoralis, Draycote Water.

Arriving at Draycote Water on the morning of 02/04 I thought it best to try Farborough Bank first and was proven spectacularly wrong when a group of three Black-necked Grebes were found off Hensborough, which had been Dan Watson’s favoured option all along. Still at least we got to see them.

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Black-necked Grebe, Draycote Water.

The long-staying Red-necked Grebe was still present having moulted in to summer plumage and whilst we chatted to Richard and James Knightbridge who were also admiring the grebe fest I picked up two waders over the north shore which turned out to be a summer plumage and a moulting Black-tailed Godwit. These birds spent something like twenty minutes trying to land and so desperate were they to do so that they even tried to put down in the water. Ultimately they were thwarted by the fact that not a single bit of shoreline was left unoccupied by fishermen. After an interesting afternoon checking ‘marginal sites’ I returned to Draycote in the evening to meet up with John Judge. Again I picked up waders over the north shore, a group of five Grey Plovers this time, the largest group I have seen inland. Again they tried to land and again they failed, giving up after just three minutes or so but not before John remarkably managed to get some dot shots in which the black auxiliaries could be seen (if you squinted hard enough) at a range of about 0.5km! The power of the bridge camera demonstrated admirably. A 2nd S Mediterranean Gull at one of the smaller water bodies was the afternoons other highlight.

The following Saturday, nearly a week after the original find the Black-necked Grebes were re-located by John Judge and we were able to confirm that they were the same individuals, one having paler flanks than the others. Dan and I were just cursing our luck on Sunday afternoon having found nothing good and having just discovered that two Sandwich Terns had dropped in to Brandon Marsh less than hour after we left there when I caught a glimpse of something odd in my peripheral vision. ‘What the bloody hell’s that?’ shouted Dan who was already on it and after a brief pause for my brain to process the image I heard myself reply ‘It’s a Long-tailed Duck!’ John Judge and Bob Hazel duly turned out and it is good for them they did as the bird was not present the following day, having returned to Stanford Res. from whence it came. There are now several instances of good birds moving between these sites (the Red-necked Grebe referred to earlier had since travelled the other way) and it suggests that my hypothesised route between the Avon and the Leam (select Leam Valley from the menu bar above) has some validity.

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Long-tailed Duck, Draycote Water.

Checking a hill on the southern catchment of the Upper Leam Valley after work on 13/04 I quickly found a M Ring Ouzel. It was not alone it transpired and the two birds spent the next three days there. I told pretty much any of the local birders I thought may be interested but decided against putting it on-line fearing repeats of the atrocious behaviour exhibited by some photographers when the species was reported from Burton Dassett in 2012. A cracking M Northern Wheatear was in the same field on 14/04, my first of the year.

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M Ring Ouzel, Upper Leam Valley.

I failed to get out on 16/04 which was another mistake, John Judge calling in the afternoon to break the news of a summer plumage Slavonian Grebe at Draycote. All three rarer grebes within a couple of weeks of each other and in full summer plumage. How smart?

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

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Slavonian Grebe, Draycote Water.

A surprise find whilst surveying Pleasance Farm at Kenilworth on 17/04 was a Short-eared Owl whilst a singing Grasshopper Warbler was just 50m or so from where I saw one in 2014 and a Northern Wheatear was only the second I have seen at the site.

Ecuador 3. Mashpi (Shungito and the Chocolate Factory).

Our first full day was spent along the Mashpi Road, at lower elevations than the other sites we visited in the broader Mindo area. The road is justly famous as a locality for a number of Chocó endemics and other speciality birds of the W slope. Our morning began well enough with a White-throated Quail-Dove sitting in the open at the roadside towards the higher end of the elevational range covered, which is approximately 1400-800m. A female Golden-winged Manakin turned out to be the only one we saw, making me glad I had good views of males around Mindo on my last visit. Next up was our first Orange-breasted Fruiteater, followed by Narino Tapaculo and a bit lower down an Indigo Flowerpiercer. By the time we reached the Amagusa Reserve the mist had descended and cloaked us entirely making birding extremely difficult. Several more Orange-breasted Fruiteaters gave excellent views and other interesting birds seen whilst we walked in to the reserve included Slaty Antwren and Bronze-olive Pygmy Tyrant. Yet another bird tourism innovation that has occurred in recent years is the establishment of feeding stations for frugivores and those at Amagusa take a certain amount of the stress out of looking for two of its star birds. I am not a serious tanager fiend but the Chloroochrysa are something special and the Chocó endemic Glistening Green Tanager is no exception. Given the dense mist I was quite glad of the opportunity to view them a super close range on the feeder. Numerous hummingbirds were coming to nectar feeders around the observation point and an unusual bird to pick up there was a Zeldon’s Antbird. A feeding station in the forest, just off the road, was our next stop for another Chocó endemic tanager I had waited a long time to see, Moss-backed Tanager. We did see another of these along the roadside later but it was nice to get the first ones under the belt and the views were of course superb despite the murky conditions.

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Moss-backed Tanager, Amagusa Reserve. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Leaving the reserve we continued downhill as did the weather and the visibility. The conditions were atrocious and though we soldiered on and found a few good birds, most notably three bedraggled Barred Puffbirds, the afternoon was somewhat disappointing. It is not called cloud forest for nothing.

Our other excursion in the Mashpi area was for the second of my most wanted birds of the trip. Recent work has suggested that the species formerly known as Rufous-crowned Antpitta is actually more closely related to the gnateaters, hence the use of the new common name Gnatpitta, but I prefer to use Pittasoma from the scientific name and differences in morphology and vocalisations may indicate the Pittasomas are best placed in a monogeneric family. Another Chocó endemic the species appears to be scarce in Ecuador and its Colombian range has been seldom visited in recent years due to the security situation there. Work by Dusan Brinkhuizen suggests it calls irregularly and this combined with its retiring habit of foraging from the forest floor make it exceptionally difficult to see. It often appears to be quite tame when encountered but would be physically difficult to see at any distance, its rapid movement through the undergrowth punctuated by extended pauses during which it remains motionless. In August of 2015 a local conservationist who farms cocoa and produces high quality chocolate on his property near Mashpi began habituating a Rufous-crowned Pittasoma in a remnant forest patch which he both owns and surveys. He was successful and I was fortunate enough to hear this staggering news around Christmas time so I called Birdquest in the New Year to ask if a visit could be included on our itinerary. Jonás was aware of developments and I was assured we would give it a try if the bird was still coming in at the time of our visit. So it was that I entered the forest with intense anticipation on the morning of our transfer from Mindo to the Choco lowlands. Firstly the bird has to be located within its large territory by a local guide. Our guide was gone for a long time, not a good sign. Whilst waiting we had seen a couple of Lanceolated Monklets, which is a very smart bird indeed but I could not really shake ‘the fear’. On his return the guide led us further along the trail and after a short distance we met the owner Alejandro who was out surveying birds. He, it transpired, had heard the Pittasoma earlier that morning but the location was a poor one in that the sound had come from a gulley we could not see in to. Our guide went off in to the forest in the direction the sound had come from and some serious machete work was audible for a while then silence. Suddenly the word went out, the bird had been located and we were to ditch all but essential kit and move in as quietly as possible. After a fairly short descent we gathered in the middle of an ant swarm attended by a flock including a number of Bicoloured Antbirds. I am told that Pittasomas don’t follow ant swarms and maybe they don’t but Shungito (the name used to call the habituated Pittasoma) had clearly spent that morning with one. The anticipation was killing me as Alejandro called softly and suddenly the Pittasoma hopped in to view a few metres away. It stood back on and then obligingly turned to give us a full view of the underparts. After allowing us a suitable time period to fully admire him Shungito hopped away and was very soon lost to view in the undergrowth, having not taken a single worm. Whilst the bird appeared to come to the call that is only different to luring one in to view with playback in so much as the individual is habituated and the encounter was still quite an electric one.

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Rufous-crowned Pittasoma, Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm project represents another initiative delivering benefits for both wildlife and local people in the wider Mindo area. Alejandro bought abandoned pasture and transformed it in to an organic cacao plantation. Bird surveys conducted when he first purchased the farm found 40 species and the number has risen to 150 in five years. Alejandro hopes to promote  organic cacao production which is far more sustainable than farming cattle and sugar cane and project activities include research, eco-tourism development and community work . The web site can be found here http://www.chocomashpi.com/index.php/en/chocolate/artisanal-chocolate-and-cacao. Numerous range-restricted birds occur in the forest including Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Baudo Guan, Indigo-crowned Quail-Dove, Rose-faced Parrot, Brown Wood-Rail, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Yellow-collared Cholorphonia and Blue-whiskered Tanager. A good write up about the pittasoma including directions and maps can be viewed here https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/mashpi-amagusa-rerserve-mashpi-artisanal-chocolate-farm/. I can recommend the chocolate too.

Ecuador 2. Around Mindo.

Whilst in the Mindo area we stayed at the Septimo Paraiso Lodge, one of several lodges in the wider vicinity all of which have been built since my original visit to cater for the growing number of visiting birders and other tourists. Like most lodges Septimo Paraiso has some excellent hummingbird feeders in the garden which allow superb viewing opportunities for a wide range of species including the spectacular Booted Racket-Tail and the Chocó endemic Violet-tailed Sylph. Those two were easy enough to see in the old days but others such as the super smart Purple-bibbed Witetip and Velvet Purple Coronet (both endemic to the Chocó region) were considerably harder to find. The total number of hummingbird species that can be expected on a trip now far exceeds that achievable previously, when searching for flowering shrubs around villages or blooms in the forest interior were the only options. Dawn and dusk walks along the entrance road yielded a lot of frustratingly close encounters with several owls which resolutely refused to budge from concealed perches, just too far in to the impenetrable forest for us to locate them. Notable among these was a Colombian Screech-Owl, the earliest local records of which by Paul Greenfield, Bret Whitney and Colin Bushell were first detailed in the 1996 review paper referred to in my previous post. We did however encounter my first Kinkajou and Central American Wooly Oppossum. Another new species for me was Wattled Guan which cross the roadway in the evenings on their way to a roosting area. To hear the bizarre whirring screech given by this species is almost as much fun as seeing one, with its distinctive yellow and red wattle and pale legs. Whilst searching for these we picked up a nice bonus in the form of a Barred Forest Falcon which gave excellent views.

A very early start was required one morning in order to search for a very localised Chocó endemic en-route to Bellavista, another lodge located in the Tandayapa Valley. Tanager Finch is known from one locality on the road side but has become difficult in recent years, perhaps due to the amount of attention it receives as it appears to have become unresponsive to playback. Birds are generally only seen during a short time window in the early morning and Jonás ensured we resisted the temptation to dally and arrived on time. This was as well because after a half hour or so one of the group, Herman, noticed a movement under some large leaves at the roadside and peering in to the gloom discovered that it was a pair of Tanager Finches feeding unobtrusively a few metres away.

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Tanager Finch, Bellavista. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was hot by the time we arrived at the lodge, having walked in along the final approach and the birding was rather slow in the forest. After lunch though things picked up nicely and most notably with views of Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Spillman’s Tapaculo and Plushcap. Stopping off at another new feeding station to add Black-chinned Mountain Tanager to the list we moved on to Milpe for a couple of hours. This area is now heavily deforested but we saw a few nice birds including Ruddy Pigeon, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush and Metallic Green Tanager. Towards evening I got to see Mindo briefly! A peculiarity of the changes that have taken place is that none of the birding done by visitors these days is undertaken on the slopes immediately around the village. Driving through the village was quite an odd feeling after all that time and we passed the now derelict hosteria where Guy and I, and one of the other tour participants Rob had once stayed. Whilst the village has grown it has not done so immensely but there are many more shops and a far busier atmosphere, though it was never sleepy. Most of the forest cover appeared as I remember it and I would be fascinated to know how the birding compared. Whilst these slopes were difficult to access they held some great birds, they remain for example the only place I have seen Black Solitaire. We were on our way to see a species I missed previously and now I know why. Lyre-tailed Nightjar favours cliffs and the best known site near Mindo is along the side of a road I suspect may not have existed when I was last there. Not only did we see it but we had excellent views of a male with full tail streamers, a genuine spectacle. Somewhat further afield we visited a site for another absolutely unique and truly weird caprimulgid also new to me. Oilbird is frugivorous and generally day roosts in caves but in NW Ecuador is known from a couple of gullies at Chontal which have the advantage of letting in some natural light.

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Oilbird, Chontal. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was historically suggested that as Oilbirds regurgitated seeds in the roosting caves where they failed to germinate the species was not an effective dispersal agent. Recent radio telemetry studies have shown that individuals will forage on extended trips travelling up to 120km or more from the breeding caves and that when they do they roost overnight in the forest. Calculations have suggested that Oilbirds may well be one of the most important long range seed dispersal vectors in Neotropical forests and a critical link in the ecological chain. Again local people are able to make some income from eco-tourism by charging a small fee to visit, protecting the birds and perhaps playing a far greater role than might be imagined in preserving the integrity of surrounding forests and those further afield.

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