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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Northern Ecuador, August 21 – September 14, 2008,
This is a report on a 26-day birding trip to northern Ecuador from August 21 to September 14, 2008. In chronological order, the locations visited were Cotopaxi National Park, La Selva Jungle Lodge, Yanacocha Reserve, Reserva Las Gralarias, Milpe Bird Sunctuary, Angel Paz Sanctuary, Silanche Bird Sanctuary, Mangaloma Reserve, Papallacta Pass, Guango Lodge, Cabanas San Isidro, Gareno Lodge, Antisana Reserve, and Rio Palenque Research Station. The itinerary included two visits to Amazonia, at La Selva and Gareno lodges, and a wide range of elevations on both the east and west slopes of the Andes. 570 species of birds were seen including an incredible 43 species of hummingbird and 67 species of tanagers. We had some unexpectedly wet weather on the west slope of the Andes so this species list can be considered less than what would normally be expected. A full list of birds seen including locations is given at the end of this report.
This tour was put together by Mindo Tours and our guide for most of the trip was Edison Buenaño. Another guide, whose services were also arranged through Mindo Tours, accompanied us at Cotopaxi. At La Selva, we enjoyed the exceptional services of a local specialist birding guide named Jose. Accommodations ranged from quite basic at Mangaloma to luxury at Termas de Papallacta. Details of the lodging and birding sites are given below.
When in Quito, we stayed at the Hotel Quito, a very nice and reasonably priced hotel in the new section of town. Rooms on the first floor are the oldest and the noisiest, so we recommend asking for a room in their newer tower. Web site: www.hotelquito.com
The Hacienda La Cienega is located about two hours (more if traffic is heavy) south of Quito near Cotopaxi and is a convenient base for reaching the park within an hour. It is an old building that miraculously escaped several volcanic eruptions of Cotopaxi. Despite being old, the facilities and grounds were very nice and a fireplace and heaters in the rooms made it very comfortable. Web site: www.hosterialacienega.com
La Selva is a well known lodge on the banks of the Rio Napo, two and a half hours downstream by motorized canoe from Coca. There is a four night minimum stay and the cost of the flight from Quito to Coca was included in our fare. We stayed at La Selva for six days and five nights and felt another day would have still been very productive. Guests at La Selva are assigned specialty guides based upon interest and we were fortunate to have the services of Jose, who has trained many of the birding guides now employed at other Amazon lodges. Overall the birding at La Selva was excellent – for example we saw 40 species of birds during a 30 minute period in their 45-meter canopy tower. The food was also top quality. However we were disappointed with the overall physical condition of La Selva, in particular the cabins. Our cabin had several missing floorboards and the overhead fan did not work. The main boardwalk was missing several slats which were not repaired while we were there. Others had similar complaints about their cabins. La Selva was the first Rio Napo lodge but it is showing its age and is not being well-maintained. Several of the birders we met in Ecuador suggested it may be worth considering other lodges in the same general area, in particular Napo Wildlife Center. Web site for La Selva: laselvajunglelodge.com. Web site for Napo Wildlife Center: www.napowildlifecenter.com
Hacienda Las Gralarias, the lodge located within the Reserva Las Gralarias, is owned and operated by Dr. Jane Lyons of Mindo Tours. Presently, only researchers or birders on tours arranged by Mindo Tours can stay here. However, Dr Lyons said she is considering opening the hacienda to birders on their own tours. The rooms are great, as is the food. The location could not be better, at 2000 meters with trails that go down to 1200 meters, and hummingbird feeders buzzing with high-altitude specialties. To reach Haceinda Las Gralarias, turn at km 71.8 off the new Nono-Mindo Road and follow the dirt road for 30 minutes (4-WD required). Web site for Reserva Las Gralarias as well as Mindo Tours: www.mindobirds.com.ec
The accommodations at Mangaloma Reserve are basic, with no electricity or hot water. There are three rooms, separated by partial walls and curtains. The shower and toilets are outside. Simple but quite good meals were prepared by the staff on site. I have no idea how arrangements are made. Someone meets you at the end of their access road, which leaves the main road at km 104, the luggage is transferred to a horse and you walk 45 minutes or so to the lodging. The advantage here is access to a Long-Wattled Umbellabird site and forest trails with Choco endemics and western lowland specialties. A web page describing Mangaloma is at: http://www.birdingsiteguide.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=193&Itemid=54
Termas de Papallacta is a luxury resort based around high-altitude hot springs. There are several thermal pools in the courtyard among the rooms, so it is easy to take a refreshing dip although it was quite cold when we were there. There are full spa facilities, which high-speed Internet as well. The restaurant was very good, but if you are with a tour you may have a restricted menu. It is a favorite destination for Quito citizens as it is only two or so hours east of Quito on a good highway. While we were there, it was fully-booked one night with a convention so it is wise to make advance reservations. Web site: www.papallacta.com.ec
Guango Lodge is a small lodge with six nice rooms, good food, heaters in the rooms, hot water and electricity, and, best of all, excellent hummingbird feeders. Fourteen species of hummingbird make regular visits, and we eventually saw them all. There is also a nice trail around the grounds, a dilapidated bridge over the Guango River from which White-capped Dippers and Torrent Ducks can be seen, and an obliging resident Chestnut-crowned Antpitta that the gardener can coax into view. The Guango Lodge is owned by relatives of the owners of Cabanas San Isidro, which explains why their web site is: cabanassanisidro.com/pages/guango_lodge.htm
Cabanas San Isidro is a well-known mid-elevation birding locale on the eastern slope of the Andes. Meals are served in a separate dining hall away from guest cabins which were very nice. Others have reported that the meals here are great, but during our stay the meals were below average; even our guide did not finish one of them. Perhaps there was a substitute chef those days. There is some birding right on the grounds of Cabanas San Isidro, featuring an undescribed species of owl and two species of antpitta which sometimes can be quite tame. One morning we spent our first two hours birding just outside the dining room door. There is a nice road just outside the property where a nice range of specialties can be seen. For more details, refer to the Day 19 itinerary. Web site: www.cabanassanisidro.com
Gareno Lodge is the only Amazon lodge that can be reached by road. It is inside a reserve for the Huaorani tribe, many of whom retain their centuries-old traditions deeper in the jungle. The lodge is operated by some of the more-Westernized members who speak Spanish. It has individual cabins but the infrastructure is subject to the fundamental situation of its remote location. For example, while we were there the water system was not properly functioning. The great advantage of Gareno, in addition to its accessibility, is that the surrounding jungle holds a number of great birds. A Harpy Eagle nest had been active until just before we arrived. As you would expect, the local guides know the jungle well and were able to bring us to a roost of a Rufous Potoo. Because of the water problems, and the fact that heavy rain made it look as if the access bridge might wash out, we left Gareno a day ahead of schedule. Others who have visited there have reported excellent birding and species not easily seen elsewhere. The fact that all proceeds go to the local tribe adds to its attraction. A web site giving details about Gareno Lodge is: www.guaponi.com/aboutgareno.htm
Rio Palenque Research Station
This is a lowland site on the eastern side of the Andes. It is on the grounds of a former macadamia nut plantation but has served as a research station for several years. In the last few years it has opened to the public. It is a first-class operation with nice rooms in a central building and good food. It is only a few kilometers from the closest town so supplies are not an issue. There are several trails around the station, all of which proved productive. There are no resident guides but the trails are easy to follow. Web site: http://www.fundacionwong.org/in/medio_ambiente.asp
Because of economic instability a few years ago, Ecuador now officially uses the US dollar as its currency. There are some Ecuadorian coins in circulation, which are the same size as their corresponding US counterparts, but the only paper currency is in US dollars. This of course makes everything quite easy for US-based travellers.
All of the roads we travelled on during this trip were very good so it was possible to make the full east-to-west-to-east trip without spending a lot of time on the road. The only unpaved section was from just east of San Isidro for about 20 km, and this was under construction, as well as a short stretch into Gareno Lodge in the Amazon. During our time in Quito when we did some sightseeing, it was quite easy to find a taxi and every driver spoke some English, in some cases very well. Taxis do have a meter, which the drivers do not engage unless you ask them to, or you can also negotiate a fare. The longest trip we took was from our hotel near the airport to the Old Town in the southern end of Quito, which took 20+ minutes, and the fare was US 6 so we felt this was a good price. In general, even in the more remote places, someone spoke English. Even though we did have our Spanish-speaking guide, I do not think that communication would be an issue.
We strongly discourage renting a car and driving in Ecuador. Passing on curves and speeding were common, and lane changing seemed random. Local drivers have some idea of the general driving customs and how to react but even so we saw many near-accidents.
When considering the cost of a trip such as this, it is important to factor in tips. At La Selva, it was posted that a “suggested” tip is $ 10 per person per day to the main guide, plus $ 4 per person per day for the local guide who carries the lunches, rows the boat, etc. In addition, it was “suggested” that a tip of $ 5 per day per person would be reasonable tip for the general staff. So for two persons this is $ 38 per day which adds up quickly, and of course cash is required for tips. In our situation, our birding guide at Le Selva was excellent and definitely worth this level of tip in addition to the fee he was being paid by the lodge. Most of the other guests there had a general naturalist guide showing them around, and they felt that the suggested tip was excessive because La Selva itself is an expensive place to stay, and the cost already includes the services of a guide.
We also gave a generous tip to our guide even though he also was being paid by the company who set up the trip. Fortunately there were plenty of ATMs in Quito so we could get the added cash we had not anticipated we would need. In a later conversation with a birding guide from a major tour company, he characterized the tipping situation as “out of control” in Ecuador (and Peru as well) so I do not believe our experience was unusual.
Even though we knew we would be at high elevations, we did not expect that it would be cold for so much of the trip. At locations such as Papallacta, morning temperatures were approximately 45 F and close to or below freezing at the higher-elevation antenna site, despite being essentially on the Equator. With the exception of the low-altitude sites at Gareno Lodge, Mangaloma, and Rio Palenque Station, everywhere was cool to cold in the morning. In addition, we had a lot of unseasonal rain, which did not help the comfort level.
Day 1: After arriving in Quito the day before and getting adjusted to the altitude a bit, we were picked up at 4PM to drive about 75 km south to Hacienda La Cienega , a beautiful lodge which somehow survived the eruptions of nearby (Mount) Cotopaxi. No official birding today, although we did see some of the common garden birds such as Black Flowerpiercer. Night-time temperatures dropped to about 10C but a fireplace in the restaurant and a space heater in the room made the hacienda very comfortable. Overnight: Hotel La Cienega.
Day 2. Breakfast and an 8AM departure for Cotopaxi National Park, picking up our native guide (required) en route. The primary feature of Cotopaxi Park is dry paramo (high altitude plains), with little vegetation and cold, windy conditions. As one might expect, birdlife was limited and specialized, with many Paramo Ground-tyrant and Andean Lapwing. A laguna held Andean Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail. A small protected canyon, where we had lunch, held the most diversity of birds, including Many-striped Canastero, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Ash-breasted and Plumbeous Sierra-finch, and Tawny Antpipit. The entire park is overlooked by the majestic snow-capped Cotopaxi, the second highest volcano in Ecuador. A bit of trivia - due to the equatorial bulge, its peak is also the second farthest point from the center of the earth. Return to Quito and overnight at Hotel Quito.
Day 3. Transfer after breakfast to the airport to meet representatives from La Selva Jungle Lodge, who gave us general info as well as our flight tickets for the 30-minute Icaro Airlines flight east to Coca, on the Rio Napo. We expected this flight to be in a small plane, but it was in a full-size A300 – this because Coca is a town recently built to supply the oil-producing and logging business down the Napo. Upon arrival in Coca, the eight of us going to La Selva were transferred to a “motorized canoe” for the two and a half hour trip down the Rio Napo to La Selva. Even though we were now in the Amazon, the boat trip was cold and wet – in addition to the mandatory life jackets, the company gives out rain jackets for protection.
Upon arrival at the dock at La Selva, it is a further 45-minute walk along a raised boardwalk (slippery when wet) and then transfer to a paddle canoe for the final 30-minute ride to the lodge itself. The lodge has a main entrance area, a dining room, and 10 – 12 individual cabins reached by an elevated boardwalk. As noted previously, the cabins and boardwalks were in need of upkeep.
There is a network of trails passing through the jungle around the lodge. A guide is definitely a good idea, not just to see the features of the jungle but also to prevent getting seriously lost. While the main trails, such as the one to the canopy tower, are easy to follow, the side trails are winding and sometimes overgrown and it is very easy to become disoriented.
Excellent birding is also possible via canoe along the shores of the laguna at the lodge, and in the Yasuni National Park across the river. One popular spot we did not visit is a clay lick, also located in the Yasuni National Park, which attracts a variety of parrots in the early morning and late afternoon. It rained the night before we intended to go, and our guide said that the birds did not visit the clay lick after rains. The cost to visit the clay lick is USD 25 per person, some of which goes to the natives to help maintain the site. Some people at the lodge who went on other days said it was great, others did not like it because it was crowded with hundreds of visitors (guests from all of the river lodges go here). We managed to see all of the parrot species that visit the clay lick during our regular birding but probably not in the numbers or proximity that the salt lick provides.
Days 3 – 7. We spent each morning and afternoon birding on the trails around the lodge, with one morning and late afternoon spent at the canopy tower, and one full day at the Yasuni National Park. Another morning we visited some islands down the Rio Napo to look for island specialties.
Some key birds seen along the laguna near the lodge included Zigzag and Agami Herons, both sitting very quietly and not moving even when we were within ten meters. In fact, we only saw the Zigzag Heron because we had stopped to look at some other birds, and Marlene then noticed the heron a few feet away from us. There were also several groups of noisy Hoatzin, Sungrebe, and a variety of water-loving antbirds.
Our morning at the canopy tower was excellent, and we saw 40 species between dawn and 10AM, mostly in the first two hours. Even when everything looked quiet, another bird could be spotted either in the large kapok tree over the tower or in a nearby tree. Among birds seen from the canopy were Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Cinnamon, Ringed and Cream-colored Woodpeckers, Yellow-billed Nunbird, Lanceolated Monklet, and 14 species of tanagers.
The walks through the jungle were mostly quiet, as we did not encounter any ant swarms. Consequently, we picked up birds one by one, but at a continuous rate throughout the days. We also saw five species of monkeys, of which the highlight was a Dusky Titi monkey watching us from a limb just a few meters above us.
The walk through the Yasuni National Park, across the Rio Napo, featured almost entirely new birds from those seen around the La Selva lodge, even though the overall terrain appeared similar. Sadly, there was ample evidence of logging right in the national park, which our guide said was an ongoing problem that no one seemed to want to confront. Among the key birds seen in Yasuni were Black Bushbird, Rufous-throated, Plain-throated, and Dugand’s Antwrens, Rufous-capped Antthrush, Rusty-belted Tapaculo and Thrush-like Antpitta. We spent one full and one half day at Yasuni, all of which was productive.
A boat trip one morning to some river islands was primarily to see Amazonian Umbrellabird, which roosts on the islands and then disperses during the day. We did end up seeing one from our boat, but not a good view. We had better success when stopping on the islands, where we saw Castelnau’s Antshrike, Dark-breasted and White-bellied Spinetails, Lesser Hornero, among other island specialties.
One evening we attempted to locate a Black-Banded Owl that was calling right next to the boardwalk, but which remained hidden to our great frustration. However, Jose managed to locate a pair of roosting Marbled Wood-quail which, like the owl, were quite vocal at dusk. Both Tawny-bellied and Tropical Screech-owls were seen near the lodge.
Day 8. We boarded our motorized canoe for the return trip to Coca and then the flight back to Quito. Overnight at Hotel Quito.
Day 9. We were picked up at 6:30AM by Edison Buenaño, who would be our guide for the rest of the trip, to head west about 50 km of Quito up to the Yanacocha Reserve, operated by the Jocotoco Foundation. Here they have set up a series of hummingbird feeders tucked into the trees at various stops along the main walking road. These provided our first views of some of the higher-altitude / west slope hummers we would see through the trip, such as Mountain Velvetbreast. We also enjoyed a great view of a Barred Fruiteater. One key reason for this reserve is to protect habitat of the rare Black-breasted Puffleg, which on rare occasions can be seen near the feeders at the end of the road, but we were not that fortunate. A web site with information about the conservation status of the Black-breasted Puffleg at Yanacocha reserve is: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/international/action/yanacocha.html
Our plan after leaving Yanacocha was to continue west on the “old Nono-Mindo road”, but it was closed and under construction so we had to back-track almost to Quito before going west on the new road. We then went to the Reserva Las Gralarias, where we would stay for the next five nights. A highlight here is the hummingbird feeders, which hosted a great range of higher-altitude specialties, such as Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Slyph, and Booted Racket-tail.
Day 10. This morning we visited a lower section of the reserve, near 1200 meters. We had good birding early on, but drizzle slowed our efforts in the later morning. This was our first encounter with tanager flocks. Perhaps the best new bird seen was a Scaled Fruiteater that flew around us in the high canopy for thirty minutes before finally settling on a branch where he was visible.
In the afternoon, we stayed on trails closer to the lodge at about 2000 meters elevation. We had a nice view of Golden-headed Quetzal early on, but rain really limited our afternoon production. Everyone said that rain was very unusual at this time of year, a refrain we would hear at every stop over the new few days!
Day 11. This morning we visited Milpe Bird Sanctuary, at 1100 meters elevation. The road to Milpe is at km 91 off the main road. The feeders here held a few new hummers, but the winners for “best actor” were the fantastic, displaying, Club-winged Manakins. We also added some new araçaris and tanagers, including Glistening-green Tanager. Choco Warbler was common here.
We then drove farther down the Milpe Road, which eventually turns into a muddy road, then a dirt trail, and then stops completely as it drops down to a river. A highlight along the road was when I noted what appeared to be yet another group of perched vultures which, as we approached closer, turned out to be Rose-faced Parrots. Although the early part of the road cuts through cultivated areas, we had a nice mix of birds along the way, including Tiny Hawk, that we would not see elsewhere. The forested area at the end of the road held a nice mix of araçaris and tanagers. Unfortunately, this area is for sale and appears slated for development.
On our way back, we made a quick stop at a restaurant called “Siete” (Seven), where we had some cold drinks and found some new hummers at their feeders.
Day 12. A very early pre-dawn start to arrive at the Angel Paz Sanctuary well before dawn. The owner, Angel Paz, has set up a nice blind from which it is possible to get excellent views of an Andean Cock-of-the Rock lek. We were fortunate to have long performances by three displaying males. Not far away he has set up a blind and feeding station which was visited by Sickle-winged Guans, Blue-chinned and Black-throated Tanagers (making for nice comparisons of the similarly-plumaged birds), Red-rumped Araçaris, and Toucan Barbets. The birds seem to have settled on a “pecking order” for visiting, but once the Toucan Barbets arrived they chased all other visiting birds away. We did end up with a glimpse of an Olivaceous Piha, followed up with an excellent view later from the trails. A White-faced Nunbird had been seen the previous day, so we attempted to locate it. This effort was not successful, but we did see a Powerful Woodpecker, as well as intermittent views of a pair of Orange-breasted Fruiteaters.
We then went to the feeding area where Angel feeds “Maria’, a Giant Antpitta which makes regular visits to enjoy worms and grubs he provides. Sure enough, after a few minutes, “Maria” tentatively hopped onto the trail to gobble up the breakfast treat. We then made a slippery walk down to a site where a Yellow-breasted Antpitta sometimes also pokes out to snag some worms provided by Angel. This antpitta did make a brief appearance, but was much more shy than “Maria” and stayed well in the shadows and brush. Nonetheless, a great view of any antpitta. After more searching for the nunbird, we went to a location where a Moustached Antpitta, can sometimes be seen. However, this antpitta does not approach the trail. Instead, Angel tosses some worms into a gully and hopes that this will attract its attention. After a bit of a wait, and a lot of worms deposited into the gully, the Moustached Antpitta did make a quick, furtive dash to retrieve some worms, and then retreated quickly into the undergrowth. All in all, quite a nice morning capped off with a typical Ecuadorian breakfast at Angel’s house.
Giant Antpitta, “Maria” and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, both seen at Angel Paz Sanctuary
In the afternoon, we drove to the Tandayapa Pass area, which is on the side of the old Nono-Mindo Road we could not reach from Yanacocha. Once again, light rain was our companion, but we still had several excellent flocks with birds such as Plushcap, and Pacific and Streaked Tuftedcheek (making it easy to see the large difference in white on the sides of the face). The key bird here, however, is Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, which we saw just before heavy rain forced an end to the afternoon’s birding.
Day 13. Another early morning start to head down to Silanche Bird Sanctuary, a lower-elevation site at 300 meters elevation. This is a sister site to Milpe and it is possible to buy a joint admission ticket for both. Silanche is a small reserve at km 130 off the main road. It is, unfortunately, a small island of forest surrounded by palm oil and banana plantations and mining. It has a 10-meter concrete observation tower from which one can see the development in most directions, as well as a road that almost goes under the tower. There are some nice birds here, but its future appears in real doubt with so little available space. We stayed in the tower for a few hours and literally saw only ten birds – not ten species, ten birds. Down on the trails we did have some displaying White-bearded Manakins (seen and heard at other sites as well) and some high-canopy tanager flocks as well as Guayaquil Woodpecker, Red-billed Scythebill, trogons and toucans. We were a bit disappointed in this site. En route back to Reserva Las Gralarias we diverted to the town of Mindo, and headed south out of town. While checking for dippers from a bridge we spotted a Green-fronted Lancebill. Farther along the road, just after dark, we went by some cliffs where we located a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Back at the intersection of the Mindo Road and the main road, a Black-and-white Owl was perched near a street lamp, enjoying a snack on the moths that came by.
Day 14. Today we left Reserva Las Gralarias and headed west down to Mangaloma Reserve; the turnoff is at the km 105 marker. This is a private reserve at 700 meters elevation reached by a 45-minute walk along a muddy track after driving several km from the main road. A horse kindly carried our bags in. Unfortunately, nearly all of our time here was marred by rain. The first afternoon, on Day 14, we did see a few new birds along the forest trails and the road to the forest, such as Barred Puffbird. Soon after arriving, rain began and continued on-and-off overnight. One highlight of Mangaloma is their resident Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, which flock to the highest ridges at about 4PM for some calling before moving off to roost. Unfortunately, because of the overcast skies, only a few of the birds came by this evening, none offering good views and none in full display.
Day 15. Heavy rain continued until about 8AM, at which time we ventured out to the trails in light rain. There was not a lot of activity, which was very frustrating for Edison because this is usually one of the best sites and is the only place we visited where many Choco endemics are possible. We did see a few antbirds, antshrikes, and woodpeckers. Our afternoon session continued back on the trails in muddy conditions. A highlight was hearing loud rapping and then seeing a pair of what were probably Crimson-bellied Woodpeckers flying off. Unfortunately, we were unable to relocate them. In the late afternoon we had a break in the rain and overcast skies so we returned to the top of the ridge where we had long views of a displaying Long-Wattled Umbrellabird about ten meters over our head – fantastic. That evening after dinner we were able to locate a Choco Schreech-owl high in the canopy, with the able assistance of a young fellow who almost chopped down an entire swath of forest for us with his machete.
Day 16. We had more overnight rain which continued lightly throughout the morning. Bird activity was very limited, and we were only able to track down a few birds such as a male Esmerelda’s Antbird before returning for lunch. After lunch we headed back out, and eventually began the long drive back across the northern part of Quito and then two hours to the east to Papallacta. Our hotel, Termas de Papallacta, is a luxury resort which is also surrounded by hot springs, several of which have been converted into pools around the rooms. A dip in the hot pool was a refreshing end to the long drive. Overnight at Termas de Papallacta.
Day 17. Papallacta is at 3000 meters and we awoke to cold and rainy conditions. There is a road just above the hotel which is often good, but because of the conditions we saw and heard almost no birds. We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then drove up to the Papallacta Pass at 4000 meters, stopping at a patch of polylepis forest, home to the Giant Conebill. But visibility deteriorated as we went higher, and by the time we reached the conebill site we could only see a few meters. After a very short stop, it was apparent this was hopeless so we drove even higher, hoping we might go above the fog. Our eventual goal was the summit near the pass where, at 4350 meters, there is a series of antennas (hence, it is called the “antenna site”). This is home of the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. Conditions at the top were terrible – strong winds, with freezing rain and passing fog. Edison eventually heard a seedsnipe, and also said he saw it through the fog once. We moved close to him down the slope, but I never saw anything through the fog and Marlene said she saw what might have been the bird. Hardly satisfying. By this time we were freezing, Marlene was getting altitude sickness, and it was obvious conditions were only getting worse. It was time to abandon the effort and return to the hotel, where it was cold and foggy but at least not raining.
We could only stay here one night as they had a full house the next night due to a convention, so after a break and lunch we headed to our next night’s stop, the Guango Lodge, only 30 minutes down the road eastward and only a few hundred meters lower. But the difference in conditions between Papallacta and the Guango Lodge were amazing. We arrived there to warm sunny weather and the hummingbird feeders were busy. During our time here we did see all of the regular visitors. The complete hummingbird list here is: Buff-tailed Coronet, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Tourmaline Sunangel, Glowing Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Viridian Metaltail, Mountain Avocetbill, White-bellied Woodstar, Gorgeted Woodstar, Sparkling Violetear, Speckled Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Shining Sunbeam, Mountain Velvetbreast, Great Sapphirewing, Collared Inca, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Long-tailed Slyph, and Sword-billed Hummingbird. An afternoon walk around the grounds was productive and refreshing, and some of the resident birds were Turquoise Jay, Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, and Fawn-breasted Tanager. Overnight at Guango Lodge.
Day 18. The first order of business was to see whether the resident Chestnut-crowned Antpitta would come to the worms set out by the gardener. It took quite a while, but eventually he did, never moving out of the shadows but giving excellent views as he enjoyed the feast. A morning stroll around Guango produced Andean Guan, Dusky Piha, and a look over the Guango River gave us White-necked Dipper and two male and one female Torrent Ducks. At mid-morning we decided to try again at Papallacta Pass, as it appeared conditions might be clear up there. This time, we were able to reach the polylepis forest under clear skies. We walked all around, but no Giant Conebill. We did see Andean (Ruddy) Duck and Silvery Grebe at a nearby lake. However, as we moved higher, fog and rain again settled in. It was completely hopeless to go up to the antenna site again as it was in solid clouds. We did make another unsuccessful try for Giant Conebill in a small remnant of polylepis and also for any other specialties in this wet paramo habitat (completely different from the dry paramo at Cotopaxi). Marlene did get a glimpse of a Paramo Seedeater.
As we returned, we dropped back into clear skies. Suddenly, we all noticed a large raptor and managed to get a look at an Andean Condor just before it slipped over a mountain range. Although Edison said we would surely get a better view when we later visited Antisana, it turned out we did not and this was our only view of the condor.
After lunch and a bit more birding around Guango Lodge, we headed farther east to Cabanas San Isidro, arriving too late for any birding. After supper we did check the normal roosting spots for the resident undescribed species of owl but did not see or hear it. Overnight at Cabanas San Isidro.
Day 19. Birding started early, with many birds around the dining room enjoying the moths that had visited the lights the previous night. This gave us excellent views of Highland Motmot, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Black-billed Peppershrike, and many others. Bronzy Inca visited a feeder. As at Guango, there is a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta that sometimes comes to food left on the trail, as well as a White-bellied Antpitta. However, neither made an appearance. Later, when we were walking on this trail to return to our room, we did happen upon the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta right on the trail, and were able to enjoy views from within a few feet as he was not too concerned about us at all. The rest of the morning’s birding was along the main road, where we saw a few flocks but not a lot that was new. One exception was when we spotted Crested Quetzal, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, and Crimson-backed Woodpecker in quick succession. Light rain again came in so it was time for lunch.
In the afternoon we drove farther down the road to some open areas where Southern Lapwings were common. There was also the usual assortment of field birds such as seedeaters. Edison spotted a Chestnut-bellied Thrush which we managed to see just before it disappeared back into the forest.
We then drove farther along the main road, past the north entrance to Antisana Park and onto where the paved road becomes dirt. We waited until nightfall, when light rain began, and had an unsuccessful try for Swallow-tailed Nightjar. Edison then played a tape of White-throated Screech-owl, and we got a far-off reply. But then there was a closer call, then yet another, until the bird flew right next to the road and in our spotlight!
One specialty at San Isidro is an unidentified owl which may be a new species or a hybrid, possibly of Black-and-white and Black-banded Owls. We heard it a few times this night, but never managed to see it. But this was just a matter of not being in the right place at the right time, because everyone else staying there did see it, often in places we had checked only minutes before. We did see a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk over the parking lot at dusk. Overnight: Cabanas San Isidro.
Day 20. We awoke to rain. Our plan had been to head east to Gareno Lodge on the shores of the Rio Napo, but well west of La Selva, making a stop on the Loreto Road which is a good eastern slope foothills location connecting the small town of Narupa on the main road with Coca to the east. But we were completely rained out at Loreto so we continued on to Gareno. The advantage of Gareno is that it is a true Amazon jungle site that can be reached by car. It is operated by members of the native Huaorani tribe, members of which living a few miles further into the jungle continue to live in the same way they have lived for the last hundreds of years.
We were lucky that there was a break in the rain as we unloaded and got to the lodge, but heavy rain began again before we could get to our rooms. The rain did break at about 5PM, giving us a chance to drop our luggage in our room and do some quick birding. The trails were muddy and challenging (at least, to us). After about an hour, we made a stop and the native guide announced we had reached the general location for our main target. Within a few minutes, one of the guides pointed it out to us, perfectly camouflaged and not more than 10 meters from us – Rufous Potoo! We watched it at leisure before returning back to the lodge, just ahead of more rain. This is when we found out we had, not only no hot water, but no running water at all because the pump was not working because of the heavy rain. In addition, the bridge over the now-swollen river had lost one of its two supports – we could sense this situation could get worse quickly.
At dinner, we decided to forget about the second night we had already paid for at Gareno Lodge, and head back west. There were three main reasons – the main one was because the trails were now in even worse shape and we did not think we could safely manage them. As most of the birds we needed to see here were forest birds that we would not see from the road, we did not think any further road birding was going to be productive. The second was that if we headed back west a day early, that could give us a second chance on the Loreto Road to see birds we had completely missed, and maybe another try at the Papallacta birds. Lastly, the conditions at Gareno were not great, with no running water, a shaky bridge, and more rain appearing to be likely.
Day 21. A key reason for a visit to Gareno Lodge is that Harpy Eagles have nested there for the last two years. But the nest is now empty, and the birds have not returned. However, they do nest every two years, so there is hope they may return to this same nest soon. So, before we left Gareno, our guides scanned all across the tops of the forest just in case…but not this time.
We did end up seeing Casqued Oropendola along the road as we drove out. Our strategy paid off, as we reached Loreto Road in bright sun and enjoyed good birding through lunch-time when rain again came in. Among birds seen along the road were large flocks of Paradise, Magpie, and Saffron-crowned Tanagers plus Olivaceous Siskin, Blue-fronted Lancebill, and Chestnut-fronted Seedeater.
We then proceeded back west to Papallacta, having to cross another swollen river in the rain when a bridge was under repair. We arrived at Termas De Papallacta under cold, rainy conditions, hoping for clear skies the next day. Sadly, it was even too cold to enjoy the thermal pools.
Day 22. It was overcast and cold but not raining at dawn, so we returned to the road above the hotel and the situation could not have been more different from the previous visit. There were many birds, and we spotted several specialties – Agile Tit-tyrant, Hooded, Buff-breasted and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanagers, Black-backed Bush-tanager, Pale-naped Brush-finch, and a few others. We returned to the hotel for breakfast just as the fog descended.
We made a try back to the pass, hoping that the fog at the hotel might break at over 3000 meters – but no luck. The conditions were similar to our first visit, with almost no visibility at the pass and no reason to even try at the antenna site.
After a break, and lunch, we checked out and headed once again to the pass, for one final try at the polylepis or antenna sites. But the fog was still too thick up there, so we continued on to Quito, where we stayed overnight at the Hotel Quito. We ended up with four separate tries at the antenna site, and had terrible conditions each time. Apparently this is typical. Our visits to the Giant Conebill polylepis sites were somewhat better, but even so we only had two reasonable tries out of four visits.
Day 23. Today we made a day trip to the Antisana National Park. Antisana is a snow-capped volcano that can be seen from Quito on a clear day. The reason for a visit is that the conditions there are savannah-type paramo, yet another version of paramo. Here there are vast grassy fields, and this is a site in Ecuador for the localized Black-faced Ibis which Edison had seen on every one of his many previous visits. Unfortunately, this visit was the first when the ibis was nowhere to be seen. Conditions were very windy, unlike anything Edison had experienced there before. Even so, the ibis is big and the land is flat, so we spent all day driving back and forth looking across the plains. We saw perhaps 500 Andean Lapwings and 100+ Carunculated Caracaras, but no ibis. We did see Paramo Pipit, which was not seen at Cotopaxi, Grassland Yellow-finch, plus better views of Silvery Grebes huddled on a pond against the shore due to the wind-driven waves. Overnight back at the Hotel Quito.
Day 24. Today started a two-day trip to the Rio Palenque Research Station, located about 100 km southwest of Quito in lowland forest. The road over the mountains is winding and dangerous, with trucks and busses routinely passing on curves and traveling at speeds well in excess of safe levels, and occasional dense fog. We arrived safely at lunchtime, and walked trails around the station in the afternoon. Although birding was slow, there were several birds here we had not seen before, such as Ecuadorian Ground-dove. We also picked up a few birds we had missed during our rainy visit to Mangaloma, such as Pallid Dove. A few other specialties seen today were Pacific Flatbill and the skulking Whiskered Wren. The afternoon’s birding came to an abrupt end when a boardwalk we were crossing collapsed and I ended up smashing my face into the wooden railing. Fortunately, nothing broken but the boardwalk.
Day 25. This morning, we returned to the trails we had walked the previous afternoon. As expected, the activity was better in the morning and we picked up new birds such as Yellow-billed Cacique and Yellow-tailed Oriole. In the afternoon, we drove to another part of the station and walked some new trails. Olivaceous Piha was a nice find by Marlene, but overall it was quiet. Overnight at Rio Palenque Research Station.
Day 26. This morning we returned to the trails we had visited the previous afternoon. Our main goal was Rufous-headed Chachalaca, which we had heard the previous afternoon. Strangely enough, we never did hear any of the normally-noisy chachalacas. It took us an hour to finally locate a calling Barred Forest-falcon, and other nice birds seen this morning were Black-billed Scythebill and Black-headed Antthrush.
After lunch, we drove back to Quito. We were very lucky that bus and truck traffic was light in our direction, because we went through heavy fog with only a few meters of visibility. The fog completely disappeared as we went over the pass and saw Quito. It seems to be impossible to predict what the weather will be over the next mountain. End of trip, overnight Hotel Quito.
Edison Buenaño, naturalist guide for Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 593-02-3226-169, cell: 593-09-9688-349
The birding guide book used was The Birds of Ecuador by Robert S. Ridgely and Paul J. Greenfield, Cornell University Press. The original version of this book was a two-volume set, part one being “Status, Distribution and Taxonomy” and part two being the Field Guide. I understand that the Field Guide is now available as a separate book. Even the Field Guide from the 2-volume series is a 700+-page book, so we opted to remove the plates and bind them for a smaller carry-along version.
Maps: We found that the International Travel Map of Ecuador had the best detail, especially for remote areas. Their address is 530 West Broadway, Vancouver BC Canada. We bought ours at a Barnes and Noble bookstore.
We looked at several general guide books, but most had information only on the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil, and the Galapagos Islands. We brought along the Lonely Planet guide book “Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands”, with a lot of information about out-of-the-way places. We also looked through a Moon Guides book and it too looked as if it had good information for locations away from the main cities.