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A Report from

Ecuador - East Slope, January 26 - February 4, 2007,

Francis Toldi

This is a summary of birding trip in Ecuador, starting at Quito and working down the eastern slope of the Andes via Antisana Preserve and Papallacta Pass, as far as the terra firmae forest in the Amazonian lowlands.  There are many trip reports covering most of the areas we covered on this trip, so I am only providing brief highlights and logistical/planning information for those locations.  We ended the trip with 2 full days and a morning at Gareno Lodge in the Amazonian lowlands.  Since there are so few trip reports for that location I have included considerably more detail on Gareno.  Details on all locations, habitats and the full list of species found there are contained in the annotated trip list accompanying this report. 

Joining me on this trip were David Armstrong, Roy Carlson, Gary Deghi and Allan Wofchuck, all excellent birders and traveling companions, and, like me, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area.  We designed the trip in consultation with Tropical Birding, an Ecuador-based birding tour company, which company made all the bookings and supplied our superlative guide Jose Illanes and able driver, Vladimir.  Tropical Birding did a fine job with the arrangements.  I recommend them without hesitation, notwithstanding the usual push and pull of any travel arrangement process.

The outline of the trip was as follows:

Day 1.  Travel from San Francisco to Quito, via Miami (American Airlines).
Day 2.  Antisana Preserve; late afternoon and night at Guango Lodge.
Day 3.  Papallacta Pass in morning, afternoon and night at Guango Lodge.
Day 4.  Early departure; morning, afternoon and night at San Isidro Lodge.
Day 5.  Guacamayos Ridge in morning; afternoon and night at San Isidro Lodge.
Day 6.  Early departure; morning along upper Loreto Road; afternoon drive, night arrival at Gareno Lodge (vicinity of Tena)
Day 7.  Gareno Lodge
Day 8.  Gareno Lodge
Day 9.  Short morning at Gareno Lodge; long drive back to Quito
Day 10.  Departure; return flight to San Francisco via Miami

Arrival in Quito.  You should be aware that it is not always possible to land in Quito due to weather conditions.  We landed in the evening, into the remains of a strong afternoon thundershower.  Cross winds and vexing mist prevented us from landing on the first attempt—we were only a hundred feet or so above ground level, and it was unnerving to lift up again to holding altitude.  The pilot explained that Quito was often this way, and that if he couldn’t bring it down on the next try we would fly to Guayaquil and come back up in the morning.  That could wreak havoc on a short trip.  Fortunately for us we succeeded on our second attempt, but travelers would be wise to plan an easy first day.  That allows a cushion in case you are diverted to Guayaquil and also provides an extra day of acclimatization if you are staying in the highlands. 

Antisana Preserve.  I had birded the Papallacta area on a previous trip, but Antisana Preserve (beyond the town of Pintag) has a different habitat and some different species from Papallacta.  On all but the shortest of trips visiting both locations makes a lot of sense.  The dominant habitat in the area is elfin forest with adjoining high grassland/paramo and agricultural areas.  Birds that we saw which are more likely in the lower (elfin forest and agricultural) part of this area than they are at Papallacta are BLACK-WINGED GROUND-DOVE (easy here, appearing in flocks just above Pintag), GIANT HUMMINGBIRD, STREAK-BACKED CANASTERO and BLACK-BILLED SHRIKE-TYRANT.

Higher up the trees gave way to colder and more wind-swept paramo/grassland.  The habitat was very different from similar elevations at Papallacta Pass—not as botanically rich, frankly, but holding a slightly different mix of birds.  The grasslands yielded excellent looks at BLACK-FACED (ANDEAN) IBIS, APLOMADO FALCON, ANDEAN CONDOR (two fairly distant juveniles only, alas), VARIABLE HAWK (both PUNA AND RED-BACKED), CARUNCULATED CARACARA, ANDEAN LAPWING (scarce and easy to miss—only 5 seen), and ANDEAN GULL among many more widespread species.  Of those just listed, I saw only Variable Hawk at Papallacta.   One particularly good patch of Chuquiragua yielded a spectacular male ECUADORIAN HILLSTAR.   The highland lakes had large numbers of waterfowl, though in some cases they were pushed to the far edges by annoying motorized watercraft.  Nevertheless, it was easy to find SPECKELED TEAL, BLUE-WINGED TEAL, YELLOW-BILLED PINTAIL, and ANDEAN COOT.  SILVERY GREBE and ANDEAN (RUDDY) DUCK were a little harder to find, but showed themselves with a modest extra effort.

Papallacta Area.  We made Guango Lodge our base of operations here:  a very good choice.  It is an excellent lodge, well situated for forays up and down slope.  We visited the “usual” areas, including the radio towers (RUFOUS-BELLIED SEEDSNIPE right outside the car door, so we were able to retreat quickly downslope, where it was merely cold, wet and miserable), the dirt roads on either side of Papallacta Pass (ECUADORIAN HILLSTAR female, and RED-RUMPED BUSH-TYRANT were the big stars here),  Sendero del Arriero along the main highway about 2 kilometers east of the Pass (GIANT CONEBILL, BLACK-BACKED BUSH-TANAGER, PARAMO TAPACULO—the latter requiring some tape, which gave stunning, close looks), Termas de Papallacta (both on the public access road above the town of Papallacta and on the IMAAP Road above the hotel).  The latter required payment of a $5 per person access fee (payable at the hotel).  I would have liked to spend more time on the IMAAP road.  In our short time there we missed the prime attraction (Masked Mountain Tanager) but did see other good birds (BLACK-CHESTED BUZZARD-EAGLE, WHITE-BROWED SPINETAIL, BLACK-CHESTED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER) and some really lovely elfin forest higher up on the road.

Not so inspiring was the condition of the road from above the lake down to near Guango Lodge.  What happened here—maybe the residents voted for the losing political party or something?  It is a bit bizarre, though, to see this major highway, in excellent condition most of the way to Baeza and beyond, in the form of a narrow, dusty, bone-jarring gravel and dirt road in this stretch.  Amazingly, there was some good birding right along this stretch, above the town of Papallacta.  Birding was tough, with a fast moving flock moving quickly down the steep slopes and out of view, while truck horns blared and dust coated the optics.  Among others, we did find SHINING SUNBEAM, RUFOUS ANTPITTA (the incongruity of this gorgeous, shy bird well-seen in a roadside thicket with all that smoke and noise at our backs was striking), TAWNY-RUMPED TYRANNULET, WHITE-BANDED TYRANNULET, CITRINE WARBLER, BUFF-BREASTED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER and PALE-NAPED BRUSH-FINCH.

The feeders at Guango had most of the species usually reported from this location (including SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD and GLOWING PUFFLEG, but no Mountain Avocetbill).  The trails and roads below Guango were also very productive. Super-highlights included DUSKY PIHA, RUFOUS-BREASTED CHAT-TYRANT (quite common here), PLAIN-TAILED WREN, TURQUOISE JAY,  BLACK-CAPPED and BLACK-EARED HEMISPINGUS, HOODED and LACRIMOSE MOUNTAIN-TANAGERS,  PLUSHCAP (when it first popped into view we all experienced, then coined a new term—“ornigasm”!), and NORTHERN MOUNTAIN CACIQUE.

San Isidro Lodge.  All the great things people say about this place are true.  The food is really, really good—if  there were such thing as a Michelin Guide to birding lodge dining, San Isidro would easily grab three stars.  The cabinas are comfortable, and the feeders and trail/road network great.  You could very happily bird here on your own or with a professional guide (or if budget is an issue, hire a guide for one day concentrating on the shy forest skulkers).  See the trip list for the many great birds we saw here, even without the benefit of hitting a mega-flock.   After dinner on both our nights here we walked around the grounds trying to find the San Isidro “Mystery” Owl, but only heard it a few times in inaccessible places.  Just a few days before a scientific group had captured/released one after taking DNA samples.  It will be nice to have the mystery solved, but it probably meant that the birds were a little more wary than before, at least while we were there.

I also highly recommend an excursion to nearby Guacamayos Ridge, preferable with a guide if you can afford it.  A trail crew must have worked on the trail since many of the trip reports were written.  The trail was in terrific shape for at least the 2 kilometers or so we walked along it.  The birding was absolutely sensational, with at least four large flocks and many individual species, making birds present virtually every minute.  The forest itself is also a splendid sight.  Our weather was outstanding—a high overcast, no wind, minimal precipitation.  These nearly perfect conditions resulted in a long and spectacular bird list, including RED-BILLED PARROT, SCALY-NAPED PARROT, BLACK-BILLED MOUNTAIN-TOUCAN (perched 50 feet away, in plain view—stupendous!), GREATER SCYTHEBILL (10 feet away!), BLACKISH (UNICOLORED) TAPACULO (1 taped into view), GREEN-AND-BLACK FRUITEATER, BARRED FRUITEATER, DUSKY PIHA, RUFOUS-HEADED PYGMY-TYRANT, SHARPE’S (SEPIA-BROWN) WREN, CHESTNUT-BREASTED WREN (truly one of the highlights of my birding life was watching this bird singing its semi-tonal song, hopping from branch to ground, only a few yards away), GRASS-GREEN TANAGER, BLACK-CAPPED and BLACK-EARED HEMISPINGUS, HOODED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER and NORTHERN MOUNTAIN CACIQUE.  My understanding is that you need a permit to be on this trail, the fee for which helps support preservation of that very forest.

Loreto Road .  Loreto Road is still an incredible place for birds, even though the continuing degradation of the habitat is depressing, and must be a real shock for those who saw it in the earlier days.  Get there early to maximize bird activity, as it can be very hot.  Lodging is a bit tricky.  We stayed at San Isidro and left at 4:30 a.m. to get there in the morning.  There are other hotels somewhat closer, but I’m not aware of anywhere that is right on the spot.  We had originally intended to stay at Sumaco Field Station, but Tropical Birding recommended against it due to the deterioration of the station and some access problems they encountered on recent trips.  One day here was not enough, but we were happy to take what we could get!

See the annotated list for the many incredible birds we saw here.  Among our favorites from the long list were FASCIATED TIGER HERON (1 standing in the river below the first bridge over the Hollin River),  COPPERY-CHESTED JACAMAR,  MANY-BANDED ARACARI (another spectacular species at the incredible Hollin River Bridge), LAFRESNAYE’S PICULET, ORNATE ANTWREN (taped out for view), YELLOW-BREASTED ANTWREN (in mixed flocks along roadside), FIERY-THROATED FRUITEATER (spectacular view of this ultra-rarity was a major trip highlight—a lifer for our guide, who has seen over 1300 species in Ecuador!), AMAZON UMBRELLABIRD (another in the Hollin Bridge gang, plus another flyover earlier along the road!), ANDEAN COCK-OF-THE-ROCK (yet another great bird at the Hollin Bridge!), LARGE-HEADED FLATBILL (very local bamboo bird, with tape needed for a clear look—would be easy to miss without expert help), YELLOW-CHEEKED BECARD, THRUSH-LIKE WREN (no tape needed for this noisy bird), MUSICIAN WREN (heard brilliantly, seen briefly), 21 TANAGER species and GOLDEN-EYED (DEEP-BLUE) SEEDEATER.

Gareno Lodge.  Gareno Lodge is a very special place.  Because so little has been written about it in existing trip reports, I am including a much longer narrative than appear above for the other locations we visited to give some idea of the incredible birds that can be seen there and to give a feel for the ambience.

We arrived at Gareno after dark, following a long, bumpy drive from Loreto Road.  We picked our way by flashlight up the muddy trail, over a swaying bridge, and finally up to the lodge proper.  Walking through the forest with only the night sounds of the forest all around was marvelous.  We immediately sat down at the large communal dining table in the open-sided dining/kitchen building, and had a very welcome and tasty dinner, after which we were shown to our cabinas. 

We awoke before dawn, had a quick breakfast and immediately set out on the approximately 4 Km trail to the Harpy Eagle nest site.  The local guides had observed that the eagle was getting into the habit of leaving the nest area in the mid-morning, so we made sure to get there as close to first light as possible.  That meant hiking most of the way up the muddy trail in the dark, with only our flashlight beams and the quiet words of our local guides to keep us from tripping over roots or stepping into mud holes.  It was a bit of a death march, in fact, and some in our group found the trip to be exceedingly unpleasant.  With our eye on the prize of a Harpy Eagle, we steadfastly refused to be diverted by the sounds of the many birds enticing us left and right.  Our diligence was rewarded with a stunning view of a 13 month-old, nearly fully-grown HARPY EAGLE perched near its massive nest site.  After long, satisfying scope and binocular views, we headed off into the forest after yet more avian splendors.

For most of the rest of the day we worked our way back to the lodge, with many detours into the open forest or on little side tracks.  Some of the birds were stakeouts well-known to the local forest guides, while others were species coaxed out by Jose, or, in a few cases, the fortuitous result of walking through this magnificent lowland forest habitat with skilled assistance.  The bird highlights of this long, tiring day were many, including many species on World Birders’ “most sought after” lists; nevertheless, we never really hit a “mega-flock” such as those I remember from my prior trip on the west slope of the Ecuadorian Andes.  The highlights were KING VULTURE (seen through a gap in the canopy, soaring overhead), ORNATE HAWK-OWL (a stakeout near a known nesting location), MAROON-TAILED PARAKEET, CRESTED OWL (2 birds on a staff stakeout day roost), STRAIGHT-BILLED HERMIT, BLACK-THROATED BRILLIANT, PAVONINE QUETZAL (one tracked down for excellent views; many heard throughout the day—how can this exceedingly rare bird be so common here?), AMAZONIAN WHITE-TAILED TROGON, BLACK-THROATED TROGON, RUFOUS MOTMOT, GREAT JACAMAR, WHITE-FRONTED NUNBIRD, GILDED BARBET, GOLDEN-COLLARED TOUCANET, SCALE-BREASTED and YELLOW-TUFTED WOODPECKERS (the latter, a Melanerpes, made us almost homesick for our familiar Acorn Woodpecker back home), OLIVE-BACKED FOLIAGE-GLEANER, PLAIN-BROWN WOODCREEPER, a long list of antbirds and allies, most of which required some tape and/or a fair amount of patience to see, including UNDULATED, PLAIN-WINGED and DUSKY-THROATED ANTSHRIKES, BLACK-FACED, YELLOW-BROWED, SOOTY AND  BICOLORED ANTBIRDS, a pair of stunning REDDISH-WINGED BARE-EYE, and a well-seen RUFOUS-CAPPED ANTTHRUSH, not to mention many others heard only.

The bird highlight list continues:  RINGED ANTPIPIT walking around in the leaf-litter in a truly pipit-like manner, SCREAMING PIHA (the first tracked down for good views, with many more left as “heard only”), SPANGLED COTINGA, GOLDEN-HEADED, BLUE-CROWNED, BLUE-BACKED and WESTERN STRIPED MANAKIN, DWARF TYRANT-MANAKIN (seen a few times well, and heard calling incessantly throughout the day), LAWRENCE’S THRUSH, WHITE-NECKED THRUSH, and PARADISE and GREEN-AND-GOLD TANAGERS.

Our lunch was brought to us by one of the lodge staff.  We spent a few welcome minutes sitting on a log over a rivulet, recharging our bodies and brains before marching off for yet more spectacular birding.  Finally we dragged our weary bones back up the entrance path to the lodge, and enjoyed a cold (!) beer, followed soon after by a welcome dinner.  We also managed to see the lodge for at least an hour or so by daylight. 

The lodge is  pleasant, but very rustic.  World birders would do well to think of Cana in Panama or Junglaven in Venezuela, as opposed to La Selva or San Isidro in Ecuador.  The cabinas are simple, clean, thatched-roof, screened and well-swept.  There is running water and private baths in each cabina, but only cold water (not that it matters much in that climate).  Boardwalks between the cabinas and the dining area keep the mud down.  The grounds are planted in simple, but pleasing tropical foliage and there is some bird activity in the area, not that we had much time to watch for it.  One tank bromeliad on the path to my cabina held a resident Hyla frog.  I heard it chirp all night, and whenever I walked by at night I could see its cute little face peeking out—true love!  There is no electricity:  all nighttime lighting is via candles or whatever portable illumination you might have brought with you.  It seems as if the facilities might be upgraded in the future if capital allows—all units were equipped with propane water heaters, but they didn’t function yet.  Drinking water is in a large plastic tank in the dining area, but I would recommend supplementing what is provided at the lodge by stocking up in Tena with some big jugs of drinking water before coming here.  If a large group is present, the local supply could become depleted, and water intake is important in this climate.

The staff is attentive and careful, though I don’t think any spoke more than a few words of English.  The food is simple and delicious.  Anyone with a flexible mind and forgiving heart will be happy here.  Others might want to think twice.  The other guests were either birders or just nature loving travelers, willing to go out of their way for a deep-forest experience.  The big common dining table facilitated pleasant conversation with the other guests.  Notwithstanding the long hot, humid days in the forest, I would love to have spent more time here.  The local guides know their birds well, including all of the mind-blowing specialties of the area, but for a list on the order of ours and other recent reports from the area it would probably be a good idea to bring your own guide, unless you are very accomplished at coaxing out and identifying very shy forest birds.  Similarly, if you are content with just the spectacular stakeouts and whatever else you happen to see, you could do fine on your own here.  Honestly, though, if we were here on our own we would have found and identified maybe a quarter of the species on our list for this location.  In any case, I suspect that they might not let you wander about anywhere besides the immediate lodge area without a local guide.  It would be easy to get lost, and the lodge is within the boundary of a restricted access indigenous reserve.  With a little more time it would have been nice to spend a day or two with just our local guide, quietly walking around the forest, looking at what he had to show, bird or otherwise. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of the maximum-bird-jamming frame of mind.

The next morning we slept slightly later, but still made it out into the forest while there was the usual early morning action.  Unfortunately it was hot and clear, and the bird activity quickly settled into quiet mode.  We walked back along the first kilometer of the Harpy Eagle Trail, chasing after any likely chirps or twitters.  Flock activity was minimal, but with considerable effort we managed to find a number of new birds for the trip, such as WHITE HAWK, RUDDY QUAIL-DOVE (pretty much a rufous blur of feathers), GREAT-BILLED HERMIT, BLACK-TAILED TROGON, CHESTNUT-WINGED HOOKBILL, MOUSE-COLORED ANTSHRIKE, CINEROUS ANTSHRIKE, SHORT-BILLED (MOUSTACHED), PLAIN-THROATED, WHITE-FLANKED and GRAY ANTWRENS, SPOT-WINGED ANTBIRD, GRAY ELAENIA, WHITE-EYED TODY-TYRANT, GRAYISH MOURNER, DUSKY-CHESTED FLYCATCHER, SOUTHERN NIGHTINGALE WREN and FLAME-CRESTED TANAGER.  This was another instance when the skill of Jose really helped us.  Without him we would have seen about 3 species.  Seeing those birds required quite a bit of plodding up and down the ridges, back and forth over the same ground just covered, swatting flies that we didn’t remember noticing on the much cooler previous day.  It was exhausting—but ultimately very satisfying—birding, because we really felt the difference that effort and skill can make in the daily results.  Plus many of those species were seriously awesome!

We again had lunch brought out to us, but this time made it back to the main road by early afternoon.  Our first plan was to drive down to the Napo River, but after setting out in the van we were advised by some men at an informal checkpoint that this was not a good time to drive deeper into the Reserve considering the Friday afternoon habits of the locals.  We had no desire to test the accuracy of the warning, so instead we used the time to bird along the entrance road, which we hadn’t done yet.  It’s a good thing we took some time outside of the forest.  New birds we saw here included COBALT-WINGED PARAKEET, BLACK-HEADED PARROT (finally a small flock landed near the road, allowing good looks instead of just parrot-objects screaming overhead), GREAT POTOO (stakeout), RUFOUS POTOO (another stunning Gareno day roost stakeout—they actually have several nearby locations for this normally exceedingly rare bird), BROWN JACAMAR, YELLOW-BILLED NUNBIRD, SWALLOW-WINGED PUFFBIRD, LEMON-THROATED BARBET, CHESTNUT WOODPECKER, FASCIATED ANTSHRIKE, PURPLE-THROATED COTINGA, PURPLE-THROATED FRUITCROW, VIOLACEOUS JAY, PURPLE HONEYCREEPER, WHITE-VENTED EUPHONIA, CASQUED OROPENDOLA and MORICHE ORIOLE.

We arrived back at the lodge just before dark.  This still allowed time to see a BLACK-EARED FAIRY busying itself around the cabina plantings, and two CREAM-COLORED WOODPECKERS returning to their night roost in a palm just outside of my cabina.  Some of the group that missed the birds as they arrived were able to see them by spotlight after dinner—truly a novel experience!

Toll the bells!  Don the coats of mourning!  The next day was our last birding day in Ecuador, and a brief one at that.  We only had a couple of hours after first light to bird along the road before starting the long drive back to Quito.  It’s a good thing we had at least that short time, because in it we added GRAY-HEADED KITE, BLACK-BELLIED CUCKOO, SHORT-TAILED SWIFT, AMAZONIAN VIOLACEOUS TROGON, IVORY-BILLED ARACARI, WHISKERED FLYCATCHER, PLUM-THROATED COTINGA, another SPANGLED COTINGA, MASKED TANAGER, OPAL-CROWNED TANAGER, FULVOUS-CRESTED TANAGER and SLATE-COLORED GROSBEAK.

At a few short stops along the way near Jatun Sacha Preserve (but still out on the main road) and on a shortcut to Misahualli we saw GREATER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE, WHITE-EYED PARAKEET, NEOTROPICAL PALM SWIFT, LETTERED ARACARI, POINT-TAILED PALMCREEPER, WHITE-BANDED SWALLOW and BLACK-CAPPED DONACOBIUS.  One final stop just upstream from Baeza gave us our long-sought TORRENT DUCK.  A small flock of ANDEAN GULLS glimpsed just west of Papallacta Pass were the last birds noted on the trip.

Ten days in this lovely country gave us 438 group birds, of which I personally noted 404, with 162 of them lifers.  I was sorry to leave, but glad to be returning home, tired and happy.

Full trip list

Francis Toldi, Burlingame, CA  USA


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