Nature

These pictures were taken by me in and around Curitiba, Morretes and Antonina in Paraná state, south Brazil.

Some of these birds can be seen on my friend Luciano’s superb live camera feed from his garden in Morretes.

Click any image to see in gallery view

Environmental campaigners outside the Palácio do Planalto, Brasília. Photo by Valter Campanato (Agência Brasil)

“What face are you going to turn up to Rio+20 with, Dilma?” – Environmental campaigners on Three Powers Square (Praça dos Três Poderes) outside the Palácio do Planalto, the government’s Lower House, in Brasília. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil)

Last week Brazil’s President Rousseff part-vetoed the controversial Código Florestral (Forest Code) which is aimed at regulating the amount of land farmers in the Amazon region, in Brazil’s north, must keep as forest.

Dilma vetoed 12 articles and made 32 other modifications to the bill – most importantly rejecting the amnesty on illegal logging and blocking the section on allowing agriculture closer to riverbanks within forests.

The government were fairly realistic with their decision-making – and, as usual, tried to appease all sides, admitting that the sensitive Amazon region needed to be used for the good of the people, and that small-scale farmers needed to be supported and not squeezed out of business, but at the same time they had to show they were aware of environmentalists’ concerns, globally calls indeed, over the future of the Amazon.

These concerns have not been alleviated: the WWF, Avaaz, AmazonWatch and an array of other environmental organisations have continued to voice their concern over the plight of the Amazon – one of the areas in the world with the highest biodiversity.

They say the legislation fell well short even of their limited expectations – and actually reduces the rainforest’s protection in its new form.

Everything Dilma vetoed and amended must now go back to the Senate to be reviewed and re-voted on before they can become law, and a provisional law in now in place to plug the holes created by the president’s amendments.

The farmers, although not thrilled by the resultant bill, have said it was not as bad as expected, calling the changes “palatable”. But they stress that restrictions in the approved bill will stop the chance for them to use the land more productively, primarily for raising livestock and growing crops.

The environmental protesters camped outside the Palácio do Planalto – the seat of the government in Brasília – are unlikely to up sticks and leave after this decision. The fight just continues.

Some reports have suggested deforestation in the Amazon is slowing, but environment campaigners are not convinced and have not been appeased by the Forestry Code in its post-Dilma guise. They say the new legislation is worse for the rainforest.

The WWF in Brazil said that “Brazilians and the whole world have watched a country continuing to play with the future of its forests, and that the legislative was instead “designed to meet the needs of only the section of society that wants to increase the potential for deforestation and grant amnesties to those who deforest illegally”.

The high-profile campaign has enjoyed a lot of support from Brazilian celebrities, and social networks have been jammed with “Veto it, Dilma!” ads.

Many believe the President has taken a “safe option” – attempting to placate all sides, at least to some extent, and postponing the tough decision until a later date – and perhaps just in the nick of time, they might think.

Why? Because Rio+20, the UN’s biggest-ever conference on sustainable development, starts in a few weeks’ time – and the last thing the government wants is a load of protesters banging on about the rainforest while they discuss the environment.

They may be in for a shock.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In my mind, the Galápagos Islands had always been one of those mystical, far-off places that only biologists and film crews go to to make documentaries. 

A thousand kilometres off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the archipelago – also known as the Colón Islands – is now visited by thousands of tourists each year in search of that unique feeling of being able to walk up to a species of bird or reptile and have it not run away but actually eyeball you right back.

Ever since I was about six or seven, I remember knowing about the islands – seeing something on the TV about giant tortoises, marine iguanas and birds with the name “booby” (the blue-footed boobies are the biggest joke on the island and the inspiration behind a lot of the souvenirs there).

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they're mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they’re mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

But my determination to one day go there was cemented by David Attenborough’s 2008 nature documentary Life in Cold Blood, in which he comes face-to-face with “Lonesome George”, the last of one of the species of Galápagos giant tortoises endemic to just one island – Isla Pinta.

“Lonesome George” is, scientists think, around 100 years old – and still in good health. I saw him last week at the Charles Darwin Research Station – which is on Isla Santa Cruz just outside Puerto Ayora. There is still a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds a female – and there’s still some time left, as experts think this species can live to around 170.

(EDIT: Unfortunately, George has now passed away, and it is with great sadness that scientists record the death of his Pinta subspecies.)

Other species of giant tortoise have suffered, too. On Isla Isabela, the Sierra Negra volcano – which is still very much active, as we witnessed – nearly finished off the local species of giant tortoise when it erupted in 2005.

Seventy individuals were airlifted to safety and a breeding programme is in full swing on the island. Some of them have bright yellow patches on their shell – burn marks from the molten lava spewed from the 10km-wide volcano.

You don’t go to Galápagos for the species count. Ecuador’s 1600 species of bird puts it right up there with the mega biodiverse countries of the world. But that’s very much the mainland.

The geologically young islands – just 3.5 million years – have a small number of species, but many of them are endemic: they can be found nowhere else.

And due to their history and where they are located, they are generally speaking not afraid of humans one bit.

Marine Iguanas. Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Marine iguanas can be found basking in the hot Equator sunshine throughout the Galápagos archipelago, and are not remotely frightened of humans. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Take for example the Galápagos-endemic marina iguanas. Any lava outcrop around the islands will undoubtedly have a few of these crawling around. They’re found solely on the beaches, swimming between the crags, and don’t mind when the sea lashes them.

Their counterpart on dry land is the Galápagos land iguana – the true dragon of the islands, and also endemic – along with a Galápagos snake, a scorpion and a range of birds.

In fact, many people interested in birds come to the Galápagos as an extension to the mindbogglingly enormous number of species on the mainland.

The endemic species on the islands include the Galápagos penguin (the most northerly-dwelling in the world), Galápagos mockingbird, Galápagos dove and the rare mangrove finch.

Practically everywhere on the islands you will find a member of the endemic Darwin’s finch family.

They appear to come from a common ancestor – and have developed into fifteen species, identifiable by their body size and beak shape and size. Not true finches, but a Darwin-esque exhibition of evolution. Although he did collect some on his voyage on the Beagle, the attribution comes from the 20th century.

To identify the various members of the Darwin's finch family you must consider its overall size and "jizz", its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

To identify the various members of the Darwin’s finch family you must consider its overall size and “jizz”, its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

The best way to see the Galápagos is by take a boat with a naturalist guide on board – and you must by law take an authorised guide of some description with you.

Not only will they point out and identify (most of the time!) what you’re looking at, but they are all local and know the islands like the back of their hand. They are extremely enthusiastic, and one time in particular highlights this perfectly.

We were in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz where there is a boggy area in a woods which is fantastic for looking for wild giant tortoises.

We were squelching around in the mud when suddenly, “PACHAY!”

I didn’t have a clue what a “pachay” was, but it turned out it was a rare endemic bird – the Galápagos’ answer to a water rail, the Galápagos crake or Galápagos rail.

The others weren’t overly interested, but I knew the worth of this little bird and wading into a bog which ran underneath a tall bush – only to spot a female, a juvenile and then a male (the best-looking as always).

Throughout the islands, you come across a variety of habitats.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males' beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males’ beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Lava outcrops on white-sand beaches where you can find marine iguanas, brightly coloured Sally lightfoot crabs, and shorebirds like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover; rainy, humid highlands home to vermilion flycatchers, Galápagos martin; brackish lagoons where you can find Caribbean flamingo, white-cheeked pintail, black-necked stilt and least sandpiper; and arid, baking-hot drylands – home to the fiery-coloured land iguanas, cactus-fincheszigzag spiders, Queen butterflies and Galápagos mockingbird.

One of my favourite habitats is the mangrove areas – trees stood on stilts in the warm coastal waters. The trees are home to yellow warbler, mangrove finch, brown pelican, egrets and herons, including the beautiful yellow-crowned night-heron.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife - such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife – such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

But a trip in a dinghy into the mangrove can provide unrivalled views of turtles and sharks – biding their time and reaching adulthood from the safety of the tangled networks of mangrove trees.

Most nature-lovers visiting the islands take a boat to go between the different islands. As you go, you see magnificent and great frigatebirds following in your wake – or even perching on the top wire of your ship.

A variety of tubenoses – like Elliot’s storm petrel – can be seen flying near the ship, with brown noddy and Galápagos shearwater sometimes coming in close.

However, if the air- and land-loving wildlife doesn’t really do it for you – then those just under the waves definitely will.

We snorkelled just twice – but there are plenty of tours that will include snorkelling or scuba diving (for those who know how) every day.

In the two hour-long snorkels, we managed to see green turtle, a 2.5-metre-wide manta ray, white-tipped reef shark and more clownfish, parrot fish, puffer fish and other amazing, vividly-coloured fish that I’ve ever seen in my life.

Sea lion cuts through fish, Galápagos

An endemic Galápagos sea lion cuts through a shoal of fish.

However, one aquatic experience you won’t be forgetting in a while is an encounter with an endemic Galápagos sea lion. Curiosity gets the better of them, and they come right up to you – in our case, circling us and then virtually pressing its nose up again your mask – attracted by the bubbles.

At the very least you should take a waterproof disposable camera (a 27-snap Kodak model will set you back about $20 on the island – mine’s still being developed!). But if you can – try to get yourself a waterproof digital camera, especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of snorkelling.

In contrast with the Galápagos, travelling around mainland Ecuador, once you’ve paid your airfare there, can be done on the cheap. Buses on the mainland will take you from one side of the country to the other for a little over US$10.

However, there’s no real way to do Galápagos on a shoestring – and for good reason.

Firstly, the airfare from Quito is around $500 for foreigners, and then there’s the fact that you have to be with a guide to visit most parts of the National Park – most likely as part of a tour, which also don’t come cheap – and you have to pay $110 to get into the National Park itself ($10 Ingala entry card, and $100 entrance free at the main airport on Baltra Island).

However, I haven’t found a person who’s come back from Galápagos and regretted a penny of what they had spent. Most, myself included, simply wished they had stretched a bit more and booked a longer trip.

Here are few more photos from my trip – which I organised with Tierra Verde on the Yacht Fregata.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, endemic to the island, are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, like this one on Santa Cruz island, are endemic to the Galápagos islands. They are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos snorkelling, photo by Ben Tavener

If only I knew as much about the fish as I do about the birds! Snorkelling is a must in the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

I’m now seven weeks into my stint at Tandayapa Lodge, 7” north of the Equator in Ecuador’s Pichincha state – and it’s almost time to go.

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener - click on the image to see my gallery of photos on Facebook.

This week I’ve been mopping up the things I’d not yet done in the area, like today’s visit to Mashpi nature reserve to tick a few more birdies off the list.

As cliché as it might sound, it’s going to be a wrench to leave. The people, the wildlife, the climate, the food – it’s all been so welcoming, diverse and intriguing.

Even the tarantulas and weird bugs buzzing round the lodge have been fun, and although I’m not the morning type, getting up at 4:30am to get to an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek before sunrise, followed by a full day’s guiding a group of nature-lovers round a nature reserve, has been great.

After squeezing the most out of the usual-sunny mornings, the afternoon is usually anyone’s guess. Here in the subtropics, rain is a common afternoon feature, but if I’ve missed the morning sat in the dark somewhere waiting for some elusive BBJ (bloody brown jobby) to give the group a ten-second flyby, I’ve often enjoyed a lot of good early-afternoon hikes, even if the altitude means you pant around parts of it.

One reserve we visit, Yanacocha, is at 3,500 metres and you can really feel that oxygen is in much shorter supply than the relatively low Tandayapa Lodge which is at 1,700m – just a bit lower than Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.

After the numerous warning I received before coming to Ecuador about its inedible food, I have to say I think it’s either rubbish, or I’ve been extremely lucky – and not just with Rosita, the lodge cook’s fabulous cooking.

I’d tried things like the local bolón – a fried ball of mashed plantain with chicken and spices, and sugar-filled empanadas (like a pancakey croissants) with locally shade-grown organic coffee (apparently the slower cultivated shade-grown coffee is better for you and the environment – you’ll have to Google it, sorry…).

And there are vegetable and types of fruit here I’d never even heard of – like babaco, tree-tomatoes, white carrots, and about eight types of bananas and plantains.

I’ve had some really wonderful encounters with nature down here, too: having hummingbirds, like tawny-bellied hermits, fly up to you while you’re on a hike only to eyeball you for a few frenzied, fleeting seconds, buzz around your head and then fly off again back to attacking heliconias for their nectar; going owling in the jungle when it’s pitch dark; stumbling on a manakin’s weird lek – with the males dancing on branches as if they’re possessed, or thrusting their primaries into the air with an electronic-sounding “beeeeep” as the wings touch 1,000 times per second; rescuing booted racket-tails from the lodge ceiling with a red rag on a long pole; and last night I was returning the amorous advances of a common potoo at dusk, only for it to come right up to me and rode over the lodge until it realised I wasn’t a lady potoo.

Anyway – I’ve so far seen around 285 lifers (species new to me) and with any luck, I’ll have bumped that up to 330 by the time I leave Ecuador.

But this is where the really fun bit of this two-month stint in Ecuador begins, fulfilling one of my lifetime ambitions, and going to the place where you are unlikely to win a staring competition with any of the local wildlife. Galápagos.

So I’ve now been in Ecuador for a month, living at over 1700m, at 0° 0’7″ north of the Equator in the remote village of Tandayapa. Not much by way of communication with the outside world, but a truckload of wildlife.

Plate-billed mountain toucan, photo by Ben Tavener.

This plate-billed mountain toucan is fairly common in the Upper Tandayapa Valley, photo by Ben Tavener. Click on the photo for the rest of my photos from Ecuador.

I’ve been volunteering and guiding for a bird lodge in the village, and I’ve got another four weeks to go in Ecuador.

I’ve been helping out doing whatever is needed to keep me there gratis – including serving the food, guiding guests, lugging suitcases up steep slopes, refilling up hummingbird feeders, and even filling holes in trees with worms to lure in the antpittas.

Of course, it’s not all work, and I get to do a lot of birding. So far, I’ve racked up over 240 species of birds new to me (known as “lifers” in the business) just in the area around Tandayapa and the surrounding including Milpe and Río Silanche.

Bird highlights have included the stunning plate-billed mountain toucan (pictured), Andean cock-of-the-rock, lyre-tailed nightjar, common potoo, and many, many species of hummingbirds.

Photographic highlights of my trip so far – including lots of the birds (sorry!) – can be found here.

After another three weeks or so, I hope to be doing some proper travelling – seeing the capital, Quito, and maybe other parts of the country before I head back to Brazil.

Until then… Hasta luego!

For a second, I thought an avian murder was taking place outside my window.

This is Brazil’s endemic plain parakeet (Brotogeris tirica) – or the “rich parakeet” (periquito-rico) as it is known in Portuguese, and it is very common, especially here in the Curitiba and in our bigger neighbour, São Paulo.

They are NOISY. They congregate in groups and fly from food source to food source, squawking their lungs out. But they brighten up my day whenever I see them, particularly this close (thanks to my zoom lens!).

"Bem te vi" (Great kiskadee), photo by Ben Tavener

This baby "bem te vi" (great kiskadee) flew right into our lounge, photo by Ben Tavener

It’s not every morning that you’re in the shower and an almighty racket suddenly starts in the lounge – well, one caused by an uninvited feathered friend anyway.

This morning a little “bem te vi” flew into our house and started flapping round our living room, landing on the paintings and furnishings but thankfully not leaving its mark, as it were.

In English it’s called a “great kiskadee” – and both “kiskadee” and “bem te vi” (literally translating from the Portuguese as “saw you well”) come from its call.

It depends which ears are listening as to what it says, I suppose, but strangely enough I hear the Portuguese version.

Anyway, we released it in grand style – and, of course, took the opportunity to whip out the iPhone to film the moment:

With Brazil’s Amazônia region scarcely out of the news recently, and what with the country’s on-going crise-de-cœur about whether it should be saving the rainforest or dragging more of its most destitute citizens out of poverty, it got me reminiscing about the central figure to all these stories – the staggeringly beautiful wildlife that the country has to offer.

The diversity of Brazil’s flora and fauna is remarkable. Over 40,000 species of flora (including fungi) and many thousands of species of fauna, including 1,800 species of birds – 300+ of them unique within Brazil’s borders.

To be honest, I just scratched the surface. Here are a few of the wonderful examples of Brazilian wildlife that I managed to capture in January 2011.

88-butterfly

The striking “88” butterfly is the photo that every tourist going to Foz do Iguaçu comes home with. Even the most conservative accounts give Brazil about 6,000 different species of butterfly. Here are a few more:

Butterflies at Puerto de Iguazú

These beauties (above) were cooling themselves at the Iguaçu waterfalls.

Below, we have a beautiful example of the ruddy daggerwing (Marpesia petreus), which I glimpsed in Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Botânico.

Brazil’s butterflies and moths make it a must-see for any lepidopteraphile. Like Siproeta stelenes – otherwise known as the common malachite butterfly:

Butterfly in the Jardim Botânico, Curitiba

Enough butterflies – there are even cooler lizards…

And some of them are quite big, like this tegu lizard

Big lizard, Iguaçu

Not to mention Brazil’s vast number of varied, exotic birdlife – including this ariel toucan, which I snapped sat on a cannonball tree in Rio’s Jardim Botânico

Ariel toucan, Rio de Janeiro

And these stunning plush-crested jays, also at the Iguaçu falls…

Plush-crested jays

And these kiskadees are everywhere in Brazil, where they are known as bem-te-vi (“see you well”). This one was pictured at the Oskar Niemeyer museum in Niterói, across the bay from central Rio.

Kiskadee, Niterói

Brazil is also home to the world’s largest living rodent, the capybara (or locally, capivara). These ones can be found munching on the marshy banks of the River Barigui in Curitiba, Paraná.

Capivara, Curitiba

It goes to show that no matter where you are, you can’t escape Brazil’s stunning – and sometimes surprising – flora and fauna.

»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»»