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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Ecuador, January 23 - 31, 2004,
I’ll start with a general travel narrative. If all you are interested in is logistics, skip to the end of the narrative. If all you want is the bird list, that is attached separately. Latin names are in the bird list document only, as are full details on what was seen in each locale (just highlights in this narrative).
January 23, 2004. Travel day. I left San Jose, California, airport at 6:30 a.m., changed planes in Houston, and arrived in Quito, Ecuador at around 10:00 p.m. It was a remarkably smooth and hassle-free journey, if a little long. If you are a meat eater and have a layover in Houston, you can do a lot worse than have a meal at Harlon’s Barbecue (the place was full of pilots and flight attendants, always a good sign). Quito arrival is very straight-forward. Booths just past customs sell tickets in certified cabs to anywhere in Quito and beyond. Even at 10:00 p.m. the arrivals lounge didn’t feel as seedy as other places I’ve been in Latin America and elsewhere. We easily made the transfer to Hotel La Rabida, quickly repacked from air travel to ground mode, and grabbed a few hours of sleep.
January 24, 2004. Breakfast at 5:00 a.m., departure at 5:30. As I ate my toast and drank my coffee I noticed the silent form of a little black rabbit in the hotel courtyard. We got to know this little fellow much better on our return to Quito later in the trip. We had arranged for a car and driver to take us on the two hour drive to Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL), our home for the next five nights. We had also arranged for the driver to stop for a couple of hours at the dry country near Calacalí, a habitat we would otherwise not be visiting on this trip. Our driver, Xavier, is a regular TBL driver and knows all of the places that the tours stop. He is not a birder himself, but is an extremely interesting and friendly person.
We stopped at Calacalí at first light. This is an area of temperate dry scrubland on the main highway from Quito to Nanagalito. There is a pass with a concrete building on the left (west?) side of the highway, just before the highway drops down into the valley which holds the town of Calacalí. The driver tilted his seat back to take a snooze while we wandered around the car park area, then down the little track that leads down the hill. This was our first taste of Ecuadorian birding, if perhaps a little different than what our experience would be like in the cloud forest. The ubiquitous RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS were waking up all around us, giving their variety of calls and songs. A young BLACK AND CHESTNUT EAGLE flew right overhead (it returned later to show itself in better light). More unrecognizable bird calls came from the slope below. Just as we were about to start down and try our luck, two cars pulled up. Out stepped a very friendly small group of birders, led by expert guide Rob Williams. They very kindly allowed us to tag along. This gave us a huge boost on our first birding effort. Even without a guide a careful birder should be able to find a number of good birds here, but thanks to Rob we undoubtedly greatly expanded our bird list for this stop. Highlights were SPARKLING VIOLETEAR, PURPLE-COLLARED WOODSTAR, BLACK-TAILED TRAINBEARER (what an incredible bird—it looks like a giant wasp, with that absurdly long tail hanging down), WHITE-TAILED SHRIKE-TYRANT (surely this is the “target” bird here—we got good looks at this exceedingly rare and local, but otherwise somewhat nondescript, species), CINNEROUS CONEBILL, RUSTY FLOWERPIERCER, PLAIN-COLORED SEADEATER, BAND-TAILED SEEDEATER (very elegant little bird), ASH-BREASTED SIERRA-FINCH, GRASSLAND YELLOW-FINCH (sitting cooperatively in a little hollow in the side of a sandy bank).
After a fairly short drive, we arrived at the lovely Tandayapa Bird Lodge at around 10:00 a.m.. It is well-situated on a ridge spur in the sub-tropical cloud and wet forest of the western slope of the Andes, at about 1750 meters elevation. There is great forest and road/edge birding right outside the door. It is probably most famous—justifiably—for its assemblage of hummingbird bird feeders around the veranda. We dropped our bags in the room and rushed out to the veranda for a first look. What a bewildering and subtly disconcerting experience! Beautiful, dazzling, yes—but also quite baffling at first. So many hummingbirds—50? 60?—at one time in a variety of sizes and shapes. I calmed down, and after just giving myself over to the joy of watching the multitude for a while, set about to look at them one by one and figure out what they were. There was a solid core of species which were present just about all of the time. This group consisted of WESTERN EMERALD, RUFOUS-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD, ANDEAN EMERALD, PURPLE-BIBBED WHITETIP, BUFF-TAILED CORONET, BOOTED RACKET-TAIL, VIOLET-TAILED SYLPH, and the tiny PURPLE-THROATED WOODSTAR. Frequently putting in appearances were smaller numbers of TAWNY-BELLIED HERMIT and BROWN INCA, with visits of individual GREEN-FRONTED LANCEBILL, BROWN VIOLET-EAR, VELVET-PURPLE CORONET and WHITE-BELLIED WOODSTAR over the course of the next few days. I didn’t record these latter species every day, but then my coverage of the feeders was spotty at best. In the forest nearby FAWN-BREASTED BRILLIANT were fairly common, but I don’t recall seeing any come in to the feeders.
Merely listing these species just doesn’t do them justice. Watching a displaying Booted Racket-Tail, with its little leg-tufts all puffed out, flying back and forth in a mini pendular flight (only a few inches up and down); seeing a Violet-tailed Sylph flip its tail around and catch the light just so; looking at the intricate plumage detail on an Andean Emerald—all of these experiences go far beyond the mere tick of the bird, no matter how glad I was to have the mark on my checklist.
We tore ourselves away from the feeders and walked the Potoo Trail before lunch. A light shower settled down on the forest about half way through, but it just seemed to increase the activity of the birds. It was fairly quiet along the trail until the rain started. Probably the mid-day slump, or we just couldn’t find a flock. The most “exciting” birds were SPOTTED WOODCREEPER, LINNEATED FOLIAGE-GLEANER, GOLDEN-CROWNED FLYCATCHER (add that one to the “poorly named bird” list—the birds here all seem to have gray crowns), and THREE-STRIPED WARBLER, along with another 10 more familiar species (HOUSE WREN, BLUE AND WHITE SWALLOW and the like). The rains or just a little luck brought us to a small feeding flock just past the open area at the bottom of the Potoo Trail, where we had great looks at MONTANE WOODCREEPER, BROWN-CAPPED VIREO, TROPICAL PARULA, BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER (simply abundant here and throughout the region), GOLDEN TANAGER, BERYL-SPANGLED TANAGER, BLACK-CAPPED TANAGER and SUMMER TANAGER.
We returned to the lodge for lunch, then started to feel the effects of jet lag and too little sleep. The excitement about being around so many new birds trumped the fatigue, though, so I settled on a compromise: I sat on the lower deck overlooking the forest, writing a bit in my journal and keep an eye and ear out for birds. It turns out that this is a lovely place for birds, especially in the late afternoon. While there I had marvelous eye level views in the canopy of many of the same species noted in the flock along the Potoo Trail, plus SLATE-THROATED REDSTART, MASKED FLOWERPIERCER, and 3 BLUE-WINGED MOUNTAIN-TANAGERS (one of the most splendid species on the trip, however common they were here). In the thick forest beyond I could hear the distinct two note call of the RUFOUS-BREASTED ANTTHRUSH and the plaintive song of the ANDEAN SOLITAIRE, but I didn’t get a look at either bird.
Later in the afternoon we decided to walk up the old Nono Road for a while. We had heard that there was an ANDEAN COCK OF THE ROCK lek there, and we weren’t disappointed. At about 5:00 p.m. the birds started making quite a racket. Seeing them was trickier, as they were across the valley in the lush forest on the opposite side, perhaps 100-200 meters away. Occasionally one would break through in all its orange-red glory, then disappear again quickly. It was also pleasant walking through the sleepy little town of Tandayapa, greeting the local residents as we walked past their houses and stores. On our way up the road we also saw a flock of RED-BILLED PARROTS on their way to their evening roost. GRAY-BREASTED WOOD-WREN burbled and sang by the roadside. Somewhere deeper in the forest a SCALED ANTPITTA called. A pair of WHITE-WINGED TANAGERS, never common in this region, was a nice surprise. There were many other calls and songs I couldn’t identify; surely a guide would have helped solve some of the mysteries, but it was very nice just strolling up the road birding on our own.
We shared the dining hall with a very friendly group of UK birders on a self-arranged tour. The food was very good, particularly the soup that started the meal. The cold beer didn’t hurt a bit. Nevertheless, after catching up on my notes I was happy to go to bed. The total for the day was something like 70 total species (seen and heard) with about 35 lifers. Not a bad start! I always love the way my subconscious is saturated with the sounds of birds and images of the forest. It’s something nice to contemplate as I drift into slumberland.
January 25, 2004. Our goal for the day was to cover the lower trails near the lodge, get in a little more quality time with the veranda hummingbirds, and take it easy in the afternoon. It was easy to wake up early despite the limited hours of sleep. Breakfast was hearty and filling, and the coffee was strong. An excellent way to begin the day! I had a minor miscommunication with the lodge managers/guides. I agreed to let the UK birders go to the hide before dawn, with the understanding that I would do so on a different morning (it can only hold so many). As it turned out, this was the only morning that would really have worked for me to go there. So I never got to be in the hide at the proper time, and consequently missed a few of the shy birds that you really can’t see any other way. Only a minor glitch, to be sure, but a little disappointing nevertheless.
We took a long morning walk up the Potoo Trail to the Nunbird Trail, Antbird Trail and all the way up the ridge to the beginning of the Toucan Trail. What a magnificent forest! Parts of the walk were very steep and slippery, but what else do you expect in verdant cloud forest! The birding was really excellent. We spent an inordinate amount of time puzzling over one skulker, only to finally figure out that it was a RUSSET-CROWNED WARBLER—a very common bird, but handsome, a lovely singer, and a lifer besides! Fairly close to the lodge we heard and then saw briefly but convincingly a WHISKERED WREN, never an easy species to actually see. Along the Potoo Trail in the vicinity of the water tank we got on our best flock of the day, with excellent looks at TOUCAN BARBET, RED-HEADED BARBET, STREAK-CAPPED TREEHUNTER, TYRANINE WOODCREEPER, OLIVACEOUS PIHA, WHITE-TAILED TYRANNULET, along with a number of our now familiar tanager and warbler friends. Further up the Nunbird Trail we had a long look at a pair of SCALED FRUITEATERS, very shy and retiring for such a big and pretty bird. Another flock, this one way up the Antbird Trail, produced a few new birds including CRIMSON-MANTLED WOODPECKER and SMOKE-COLORED PEWEE. Again, with no guide there were many that got away. A green streak was some kind of quetzal. A MOUSTACHED ANTPITTA called very close at hand but wouldn’t come out for me. Innumerable birds called and sang in the distance. Small tracks led off the main trail to likely stake-outs for something, but we didn’t know what and didn’t see them. We could have improved our daily total even with a bit more careful questioning of the lodge staff, but at this point we were just happy to be there, in this marvelous habitat seeing many exciting birds.
We made our way back for lunch, and had a nice conversation with the departing group. Then we took another afternoon walk up the old Nono Road, hoping for a better look at the Cock of the Rock, and allowing enough extra time to do more birding along the road. It had looked and sounded promising the day before, but we hadn’t had much time before dusk. Our strategy paid off handsomely, with excellent views of the Cocks of the Rock, some flying right overhead on their way to the roost/lek. We came upon a large flock just below the lodge on the entrance road, right where it turns off of the road to the upper valley. Although it was mostly our increasingly familiar friends, we added a few new species, including WHITE-CRESTED ELAENIA, METALLIC-GREEN TANAGER, GOLDEN-NAPED TANAGER, BLUE-CAPPED TANAGER (deceptively long and slim) and WHITE-WINGED BRUSH-FINCH (in the shrubs near the lodge carpark).
Just up from Tandayapa Village we saw TRICOLORED BRUSH-FINCH and the interestingly dark subspecies of an old friend from home, BLACK PHOEBE. Along the Nono Road we were lucky to get a clear look at a LONG-TAILED ANTBIRD in the tangled roots and ferns hanging over the roadcuts. More expected were the STREAK-NECKED FLYCATCHER along with the same species we saw yesterday. We heard and then briefly glimpsed a NARIÑO TAPACULO. Good luck getting a good look at one of those!
As the light faded and another birding day drew to a close, we trudged back to the lodge. At dusk, right on schedule, an obliging RUFOUS-BELLIED NIGHTHAWK flew right by the veranda. It was a very different atmosphere this evening, with just one table occupied for dinner. Allan and I shared the table with two very friendly individuals, one from the UK and one fellow North American. Today’s totals were also good: 58 species for the day, with 19 lifers. The trip list was up to about 95 species.
January 26, 2004. Another early morning. The previous evening had been wetter than previous days, and I was a little worried that it would be cloudy in the morning. I stepped out on to the veranda before dawn, and looked up at the cloudless sky, filled with brilliant stars in unknown constellations. Only in the far north did I see some familiar configurations of stars.
Allan and I teamed up today with one of our fellow guests for a day of birding in the upper Tandayapa Valley. We had arranged through TBL to have a taxi take us up to the “top” of the road (at around 2300 meters elevation) and drop us off. We had also arranged a packed lunch. We then slowly worked our way back down the road, eventually walking all the way back to the TBL in the late afternoon. The birding was good all of the way down, except for the stretch about 2-4 Km above TBL, where there was very noisy (but obviously necessary) road maintenance work going on. Unfortunately there were some tantalizingly good flocks in this area, but the noise made it hard to hear them, and undoubtedly pushed them further off the road.
Although the upper part of the valley is still within the Subtropical zone, there are some significant differences in the birds found there as compared to the lower valley. Any bird trip to the area should allow time in both locations. I would have liked another day in the upper valley, but had to settle for this one day. It’s not fair to dismiss this day as mere “road birding.” I have to confess that I enjoy the easier visibility of birds found along the roadside, despite the typical absence of the more secretive species that usually require walking along the often silent forest trails. I usually balance my tropical trips with some of each. In this case, even along the road we found a large number of forest species, including a few that had no business being there (by conventional wisdom)!
Although some species were visible throughout the day, the main birding opportunities here were governed by the presence or absence of mixed feeding flocks. We started at the junction of the old Nono-Mindo Road and the road to Nanegalito, and slowly worked our way down toward Bellavista Lodge. Among our early morning treats were spectacular, close views of RED-BILLED PARROT, PLATE-BILLED MOUNTAIN-TOUCAN, MASKED TROGON, very conspicuous TURQUOISE JAY and DUSKY BUSH-TANAGER. We heard the deep, “whooooa” of a WHITE-THROATED QUAIL-DOVE, but the bird never came out into view. I also recognized the call of the CRESTED QUETZAL on several occasions during the day but we could never seem to locate the caller. There were many calls and songs that went completely unidentified. Undoubtedly we missed some good birds through pure ignorance. A guide would have put us on to many new species, I’m sure, but it was great to just walk along this very beautiful forest road finding our own birds.
Right at the junction of the Nanegalito and Mindo Roads we had a very lucky break: we found an ANDEAN PYGMY-OWL roosting in a small tree just above eye level. A mob of small birds was harassing and mobbing the owl. This brought up and out some birds we might have missed otherwise. In the mob we were able to pick out SPECKLED HUMMINGBIRD, COLLARED INCA (the hummingbirds were particular aggressive), FLAVESCENT FLYCATCHER, WHITE-TAILED TYRANNULET, STREAK-NECKED FLYCATCHER, BROWN-CAPPED VIREO, BLACK-CRESTED WARBLER, CAPPED CONEBILL, MASKED FLOWERPIERCER, SPECTACLED WHITESTART.
On our way down to Bellavista we found a few more flocks, which included TOUCAN BARBET, CRIMSON-MANTLED WOODPECKER, AZARA’S SPINETAIL, STREAKED TUFTEDCHEEK, PEARLED TREERUNNER, MONTANE WOODCREEPER, CINNAMON FLYCATCHER, PLAIN-TAILED WREN (initially mistaken for Whiskered Wren), and GOLDEN, METALLIC-GREEN and BLACK-CAPPED TANAGERS. A particular treat was a good look at a GRASS-GREEN TANAGER. We tried for some time to coax out an OCELLATED TAPACULO, but despite calling very close by, it wouldn’t come out. While waiting quietly in that vicinity, though, we were surprised to see at very close range and in the relative open a SLATY-BACKED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH, with a lovely YELLOW-BELLIED CHAT TYRANT in the same binocular view. A PLAIN-BREASTED HAWK and a bit later on a BLACK-AND-CHESTNUT EAGLE put in appearances overhead. A few WHITE-COLLARED SWIFTS sped by from time to time.
At around 11:00 a.m. we found ourselves at Bellavista Lodge. The owners were very friendly, and we sat for a while drinking excellent coffee and watching their feeders. We enjoyed good looks at some of the same species we had seen at TBL, with the addition of SPECKLED HUMMINGBIRD and the striking COLLARED INCA. Unfortunately, despite carefully checking all of the feeders we could see, we didn’t turn up a Gorgeted Sunangel, one of our key targets for that location. Larry, a professional guide, kindly took us a short way up one of the forest trails to see a roosting COMMON POTOO that he had located earlier.
We walked down the road heading back towards TBL. Since it was mid-day the bird activity had lessened a bit, and flocks were harder to find. Just down from the lodge two GREEN-AND-BLACK FRUITEATERS were very quietly feeding in a tangle of vegetation. We were delighted and more than a little surprised to have excellent out in the open views of a CHESTNUT-CROWNED ANTPITTA that Allan found right by the side of the road. We stopped at Loma Linda, Tony Nunnery’s and Barbara Bolz’s hard to find residence, and for $5 each enjoyed herbal tea, cookies, our host’s excellent company and another set of spectacular hummingbird feeders. It was a pleasure to sit on the deck, watching the feeders and feeding ourselves on our TBL packed lunches. All too soon we tore ourselves away from this lovely spot and continued on down the road. Occasional showers followed us down the mountain. Some noisy roadwork precluded much birding, but we still saw a number of nice flocks with now-familiar tanagers, and a few other excellent species including CRIMSON-RUMPED TOUCANET and BLACK-AND-WHITE COTINGA.
We returned to the lodge at around 4:30 in the afternoon. After another session at the feeders I took a walk around the grounds, not adding any new birds, but just enjoying the day’s end in this lovely spot. Our daily total was 84 species, with the trip list now standing at 129 species.
January 27, 2004. We then began the next phase of our trip. Allan and I had hired a private guide and driver to take us to some of the more distant locales. Our guide was Mark Gurney, who is on the TBL staff. Mark was an excellent guide, very knowledgeable about the bird identifications including vocalizations. As expected, we saw and heard many more species than we would have on our own in the places we visited with him. Not only did he know virtually all of what he was hearing and seeing, but he also knew precisely where to stop—and where not to.
Today’s primary destination is one that one could bird alone, with reasonably accurate directions. We arrived at first light at the Milpe Road in Los Bancos, in the Upper Foothills at around 1000 meters in elevation. About 2 km down the road we stopped and birded the remnant forest right along the road. Flocks of MAROON-TAILED PARAKEET blasted past, with BRONZE-WINGED PARROT flocks moving by at a more measured pace. A BROAD-BILLED MOTMOT called, then little later on showed itself, as did a PALE-MANDIBLED ARACARI. The very rare and local MOSS-BACKED TANAGER put in an early appearance. Fortunately we also got views a little later on in better light. LEMON-RUMPED TANAGER was abundant, but the FAWN-BREASTED TANAGER was a little harder to see, only appearing at first light. OCHRE-BREASTED TANAGER called loudly in the morning. They should rename that one “Big-mouthed Tanager” both for its loud, almost obnoxious call as well as its huge gape. SILVERY-THROATED, BLUE-NECKED and WHITE-SHOULDERED TANAGERS showed well, all familiar from tropical points north.
With better light but still in the early morning “prime time” we walked a few dozen meters down a small dirt track that headed down into better looking forest. We didn’t get any further—for almost three hours we watched a gigantic feeding flock which stayed relatively stationery. There was a multitude of birds on all levels, be it high in the canopy or lower in the understory. Mark identified a number of birds by sight or call that we couldn’t get on right away, but almost all of them cycled back through the trees and allowed excellent views later on. The flock included such great birds as CHOCO TROGON, OLIVACEOUS PICULET, SMOKEY-BROWN WOODPECKER, PLAIN XENOPS, WEDGE-BILLED and SPOTTED WOODCREEPER, SCALY-THROATED, BUFF-FRONTED AND LINNEATED FOLIAGE GLEANER (It was a veritable foliage-gleaner clinic! The Scaly-throated is poorly named—it should be called “Buff-browed” or maybe “Eye-ringed”), SLATY and DOT-WINGED ANTWREN, RUFOUS-RUMPED ANTWREN (I finally got a great look including the rufous rump on my third try as this active little bird danced by), SOOTY-HEADED TYRANNULET, SLATY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, SCALE-CRESTED PYGMY-TYRANT, ORNATE FLYCATCHER (I would have liked a longer look than the few seconds I had with this one), CLUB-WINGED MANAKIN (what a weird bird, especially when vocalizing!), LESSER GREENLET, ECUADORAN THRUSH, BAND-BACKED WREN, CHOCO WARBLER (much plainer looking than what is illustrated in the field guide), YELLOW-COLLARED CHLOROPHONIA, ORANGE-CROWNED EUPHONIA, RUFOUS-THROATED TANAGER, FLAME-FACED TANAGER and YELLOW-THROATED BUSH-TANAGER. SPOTTED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH sang persistently, but never came out where we could see it.
After the flock finally passed, we walked back to the main road for some open country birds. The sky was only partly cloudy, raising the temperature and reducing the bird activity, but some birds were still present. From the road we saw a number of typical tropical pastureland birds (see bird list), with a few highlights: A STRIPED CUCKOO sang steadily from a small tree, allowing us to locate it and have pretty good looks at this usually very inconspicuous species. A nifty little COMMON TODY-FLYCATCHER busied about in a small tree. AZARA’S, RED-FACED and SLATY SPINTETAIL were well seen, as were WHITE-THIGHED SWALLOW (overhead and perched on wires). A gorgeous male SLATE-COLORED GROSBEAK sang away in plain sight. Mark pointed out the distinctive call of a CHESTNUT-HEADED OROPENDOLA. Unfortunately it didn’t show, as this is a rather unusual species in this location. The warm weather did make for good raptor conditions, and we enjoyed good looks at GRAY-HEADED, SWALLOW-TAILED and DOUBLE-TOOTHED KITES, and BARRED HAWK.
A little after noon we headed over to the town of Mindo (1500 meters) for lunch. A GOLDEN-HEADED QUETZAL greeted us perched on a branch right over the road in to town, which was particularly welcome since we had missed it back in the Tandayapa Valley. We had a very pleasant lunch at the Restaurant Los Colibríes, watching a few new species of hummingbirds along with some now familiar species. The new ones for the trip were WHITE-WHISKERED HERMIT, GREEN-CROWNED WOODNYMPH, WHITE-NECKED JACOBIN and GREEN VIOLETEAR. After lunch we walked around the gardens in the vicinity of the restaurant and down a path through riparian woodland to the river. These areas yielded some new species, including TORRENT TYRANNULET (on the river, of course), GOLDEN-FACED TYRANNULET, BLACK-CAPPED TITYRA, BAY WREN, SWALLOW TANAGER, BAY-HEADED TANAGER, BLACK-WINGED and BUFF-THROATED SALTATOR and DULL-COLORED GRASSQUIT. The latter bird, not to be confused with the Plain-colored Seedeater or the Drab Seedeater is very well named—thank God for the bi-colored bill!. These birds serve to remind us that not ALL neotropical birds have multi-colored plumage and tail streamers! At the bridge over the river (heading back into town from the restaurant) we found a SNOWY EGRET (not very common in this area), WHITE-CAPPED DIPPER, and a small flock on the opposite bank which included a female WHITE-WINGED BECARD.
While walking up the road not far from the bridge I saw my first PACIFIC HORNERO, a bird that I really loved watching. I called them “Road Pittas.” They are sort of like plovers, sort of like antpittas, sort of like thrushes. What a great bird! Also on the road were two MASKED WATER TYRANTS which seemed an odd place to see them, although there were some flooded fields not too far away. Two WHITE-LINED TANAGERS flashed across the road. I stopped at the only place in town that had a long-distance phone and made a call home.
We ended the day birding along a small cobble road that takes off from the main road a kilometer or so above the town on the way back to the highway. The trees lining the little road had a few goodies for us, including SCARLET-BACKED WOODPECKER. A BRAN-COLORED FLYCATCHER perched on a branch over the road, much brighter and prettier than it appears in the field guide. A nearby field had a calling WHITE-THROATED CRAKE, as well as a large flock of BLACK-AND-WHITE SEEDEATERS. These and other fields also contained the much more common BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT and VARIABLE and YELLOW-BELLIED SEEDEATERS. As we birded along this road, scattered groups of workers walked by, returning home after a day in the fields. They looked at us with good humor and some curiosity as they went by returning our greetings.
Back at the lodge, it was back to full house conditions. A very friendly new group had arrived, and their happy conversations and long list review sessions filled the air. Our daily total was a respectable 107 species, bringing the trip total to a little over 200 species.
January 28, 2004. This was another day of excellent birding, which also served to greatly enhance the overall trip total! We awoke at our accustomed hour and headed yet further down the western slope, this time to some fragments of lower foothill forest near the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado, at something like 500 meters in elevation. Again, with proper directions this is an area that one could bird without a guide, but having one really helps locate the remaining forest and the birds. Many of the best birds here announced their presence with a distinctive call from the thick vegetation alongside the road, and knowing which ones to pursue made quite a difference in our experience. Mark was again superb here, not only finding and re-finding the best species, but getting us on the harder to locate species. The very short “guide only” species list is testament to his efforts and abilities.
The start was inauspicious to the extreme. We pulled off the main highway and on to a fairly wide dirt track. A few large trees and cut-over vegetation were near the road. We stood alongside as one belching truck after another drove on by, with us gazing at the trees and shrubs while the truck drivers and local kids gazed at us. Apparently this was the main entrance to a road materials quarry. Despite the noise and smell, there were some good birds even here. Another STRIPED CUCKOO was easy to see in the middle of the road. A LITTLE CUCKOO just eluded our view—it shot into a nearby tree, never to reappear. A RUFOUS MOTMOT showed itself well close to the road, as did a RUFOUS-TAILED JACAMAR. In the trees close alongside the road we found a very good flock, with highlights including WESTERN SLATY-ANTSHRIKE, SLATY ANTWREN, GOLDEN-FACED TYRANNULET, SLATE-THROATED GNATCATCHER, PURPLE HONEYCREEPER, GREEN HONEYCREEPER, YELLOW-TUFTED DACNIS (a good candidate for prettiest bird of the day, if not the entire trip), GUIRA TANAGER, YELLOW-TAILED ORIOLE and YELLOW-BELLIED SISKIN, not to mention a number of the tanagers and other passerines we had enjoyed yesterday at Los Bancos.
Despite the good birds, it was a relief to continue on the track beyond the quarry. The road then made a long right hand bend up a hill, with very rich forest in the canyon below. This was the best birding of the day, and in fact we spent most of the rest of the day in this spot, walking back and forth. Even in the middle of the day there was SOME bird activity, although it was best, as expected, in the early morning. By the middle of the afternoon it was only partly cloudy and very, very hot.
One sad and poignant moment was when we walked around a corner to a location where just two weeks prior Mark had shown another guest a White-bearded Manakin lek. This day there were only the broken fragments of a cut and bulldozed forest. A few epiphytes were still growing from the tangled remains. The people at Tandayapa Lodge and others in Ecuador are fighting valiantly to preserve as much forest as possible, but it is not an easy struggle and there are so many losses along the way. Looking at that cut fragment, wondering how much of this forest will still be there by the time I return or anyone reading this gets there, put us all into a somber mood. True, our birding zeal slowly revived over the next hour, but with this horrible image deeply etched into our memories. I can’t imagine that any lover of tropical birding—or any birding, for that matter—needs to be reminded of the importance of preserving habitat and giving assistance to those on the front lines of this effort.
Disappearing as it is, this fragment still has an astonishing array of spectacular bird species. Here is a list of the highlights only, with some parenthetical annotations. LITTLE TINAMOU (heard only—what is a trip to the neotropics without hearing the quivering whistle of a tinamou coming from deep within the forest!), SWALLOW-TAILED KITE (including one pair right overhead, with a male doing what appeared to be elaborate courtship behavior), PLUMBEOUS KITE, LAUGHING FALCON (2 perched in plain view right near the highway turnoff in the late afternoon), BAT FALCON (perched on a snag right overhead), DUSKY PIGEON, ROSE-FACED PARROT (frustratingly, a guide-only bird, seen while we were deep in the forest searching for a calling Trogon; I saw only some movement in the leaves made by the departing bird), BLUE-HEADED PARROT (including a nice scope view of a perched bird), GREEN THORNTAIL (various sightings, including a female sitting inside her tidy, lichen-plated nest under a large leaf by the roadside), PURPLE-CHESTED HUMMINGBIRD (it took a while for me to get a convincing view of this species as they whizzed about the roadside, always seeming to perch in terrible light), PURPLE-CROWNED FAIRY, WESTERN WHITE-TAILED TROGON, COLLARED TROGON, WHITE-NECKED PUFFBIRD (a stunning scope view of this bird, not at all to be expected in this location), PALE-MANDIBLED TOUCAN, CHOCO TOUCAN, CHESTNUT-MANDIBLED TOUCON (we saw and heard both this and the prior species, but rarely at the same time; Mark explained that the identification is much more difficult than it would appear from the field guide, with the coloration of the bill and ocular area quite variable and light-dependent), GOLDEN-OLIVE, BLACK-CHEEKED, SMOKY-BROWN and RED-RUMPED WOODPECKERS, STREAKED XENOPS, PLAIN-BROWN, WEDGE-BILLED, SPOTTED AND STREAK-HEADED WOODCREEPERS, GRISCOM’S ANTWREN (another “thanks to Mark” bird, first heard than tracked as it raced from tree to tree until we finally had excellent looks close by), PACIFIC ANTWREN (a very handsome bird that obligingly worked a small tree by the immediate roadside), WHITE-FLANKED ANTWREN, DUSKY ANTBIRD (actually came out into the open without any taping or other action on our part), CHESTNUT-BACKED ANTBIRD (Only a couple of plays of the call was enough to make this handsome bird pop out), STUB-TAILED ANTBIRD (a bird singing endlessly and appearing and disappearing in a thick tangle allowed only a brief glimpse—how can they move about so much without making any apparent motion?), GRAY ELAENIA, BLACK-HEADED TODY-TYRANT, YELLOW-MARGINED FLATBILL (FLYCATCHER), SOCIAL FLYCATCHER, RUSTY-MARGINED FLYCATCHER (these last two are another pair that is more difficult to distinguish than most give them credit for), CINNAMON BECARD, PURPLE-THROATED FRUITCROW (much more satisfying than the scraggly single bird I saw in the rain years ago in Costa Rica!), WHITE-BEARDED MANAKIN (the lek may have been destroyed but they are still in the area, perhaps on other lek sites), SOUTHERN NIGHTINGALE-WREN (heard on several occasions, but we couldn’t bring it out into view; the song isn’t as haunting as that of the Northern Nightingale Wren, one of my all-time favorite bird songs), CHOCO WARBLER, GRAY-AND-GOLD TANAGER, DUSKY-FACED TANAGER (very Bush-Tanager-like in its behavior), TAWNY-CRESTED TANAGER, SLATE-COLORED GROSBEAK, LESSER SEEDFINCH (in the disturbed area on the entrance road), SCARLET-RUMPED CACIQUE (not very common there).
We returned for dinner at the lodge, did the bird notes and retired early. This was the point in a trip like this when sleep deprivation starts to catch up to me and overwhelm my pure enthusiasm. On a longer trip it would be a good time to schedule an off-day, but with only two days of birding left on this trip I wasn’t going to let mere fatigue slow me down if I could help it! The day’s total was 109 species, and many new species brought the trip list up to 264.
January 29, 2004. Today marked the last day of our guided birding as well as our last time at TBL. We left TBL early, and made our way back toward Quito before light. At dawn we were slowly bumping up the entrance road up to Yanacocha. Unfortunately, there was also a bus with a birding tour bumping up at an even slower rate of speed, with nowhere to pass. We stopped for the lovely morning view and a few birds so we didn’t have to drive in their dust, and were rewarded with an excellent look at BLACK-TAILED TRAINBEARER, a couple of RUFOUS-NAPED BRUSH-FINCH, which can sometimes be difficult to coax out of the underbrush, and a pair of BROWN-BACKED BUSH-TYRANT, not to mention the ubiquitous GREAT THRUSH. Other birds in the area were BROWN-BELLIED SWALLOW overhead, BLACK FLOWERPIERCER and a nice pair of SOUTHERN YELLOW GROSBEAKS.
On arrival at the parking area for Yanacocha, we were thrilled with the spectacular views of Pichincha Volcano and other peaks in the area, with a beautiful blue sky overhead. Mark said in many trips to the area he had never seen it so clear. The birds cooperated, and right where we left the car we were able to see a number of excellent birds on the steep, wooded slopes below the track that works around the mountain to the west. Among the species we saw well here were BAR-BELLIED WOODPECKER, a pair of BARRED FRUITEATER, the first of many incomparably beautiful SCARLET-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER and BLACK-CHESTED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER and SUPERCILIARIED HEMISPINGUS.
We walked along the level track around the mountain, still enjoying the great views of the distant peaks and the heavily wooded valleys far below. Because the large birding group was further along the trail, we figured that they had “taped out” all of the more secretive birds, and this was indeed the case. Alas, OCELLATED TAPACULO would remain a “heard only” on this trip. We only managed a fleeting glimpse of UNICOLORED TAPACULO, and all of our antpittas here were also heard only, including UNDULATED, RUFOUS AND TAWNY ANTPITTAS. I think the guide heard another one or two species, but those were the ones that I heard, in the case of the Rufous and Tawny, on multiple occasions.
Since this area has been protected (a fairly recent event, thanks, I believe, primarily to the Jocotoco Foundation), there has been a series of hummingbird feeders placed at strategic points along the trail, culminating in a sitting area, restroom, and feeding station near the actual “Inca ditch,” or ancient aquaduct/ditch that carried water down toward Quito. The hummingbirds here were magnificent: MOUNTAIN VELVETBREAST, the fluttery, slow-motion wingbeats of the GREAT SAPPHIREWING, BUFF-WINGED STARFRONTLET, SAPPHIRE-VENTED and GOLDEN-BREASTED PUFFLEG, and TYRIAN METALTAIL. At the end of the feeder trail was a small sitting area with a number of feeders and superb views of the neighboring peaks. After a little while the improbable, bizarre, “that can’t be real” SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD made an appearance. We waited a while, and it returned from time to time. How it could even fit its bill into the feeder hole was beyond me! It seems like every set of feeders has its “honorary” hummingbirds—in this case they were GLOSSY FLOWERPIERCER, quite effectively raiding the feeders.
By now the clouds were finally beginning to float in and obscure the views. We let the big group get a head start, then slowly made our way back along the track to the entrance. The plants were as wonderful as the birds. I would have loved to have been in the company of a botanist on this stretch. In addition to the big leafy fronds of the Giant Rhubarb, there were a number of flowers, even some brilliant orchids. We continued to see birds, including both male and female RAINBOW-BEARDED THORNBILL (doing their strange, fluttery feeding behavior, even perching on the rim of the flowers; these did not go to the feeders), RUFOUS WREN, SPECTACLED WHITESTART, CINEROUS CONEBILL, BLUE-BACKED CONEBILL, more gorgeous tanagers in the form of GOLDEN-CROWNED TANAGER, HOODED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER and a good but brief view of a single BUFF-BREASTED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER.
By the time we made our way back to our car, we had the place to ourselves. We ate our packed lunches at the entrance gate, watching the thickening fog swirl in. It was very quiet and very beautiful. From there we drove straight to our Quito hotel, checking in by the mid-afternoon. We wandered up Avenida Amazonas to Ejido Park, and enjoyed watching people and the hustle-bustle of city life. We looked into a few shops, and a small market with folkloric items. We even managed to get a new trip bird (!), EARED DOVE, in Ejido Park! We had a very average dinner at the hotel, and went to bed a bit earlier than usual. Our daily total was a modest 42 species, bringing the trip total to 297.
January 29, 2004. While enjoying toast and coffee in the pre-dawn darkness, I looked out the window to my left, and looking back in at me from the garden was my friend, the black rabbit. I guess it is their guard-rabbit—good to have one of those in security-conscious Quito. Xavier, who had been our driver on our TBL-guided trips these last few days, picked us up on time and we headed out of Quito and up to Papallacta Pass. It was a very agreeable kind of birding. Xavier is a very pleasant fellow, and knew all of the appropriate stops.
We started at the radio towers above the pass. One COULD get a taxi or public bus to the pass proper, then walk up there, but at 4200 meters (14,000 feet) it wouldn’t be an easy walk. If the road is always in the fairly good condition in which we found it, it wouldn’t be hard to get a regular passenger car or taxi up there (steepness being more of an issue than road surface). Also, getting there first thing in the morning seems to be a pretty good idea, optimizing the chance for shy birds and for better weather. We were quite fortunate on both counts. The weather was clear, with only a few scattered clouds. It was cold and windy, but we were ready for that. We were the first up to the towers, and walked around a bit admiring the remarkable view of nearby volcanoes, and range after range of green ridges fading off into the distant Amazon basin. We had very clear views of nearby Antisana and a bit further away, the elegant cone of Cotopaxi, highest summit in Ecuador.
Walking about the radio towers, right on the concrete pads were two separate pairs of RUFOUS-BELLIED SEEDSNIPE. We had knockout views of these birds as they casually walked around, pecking for food. We left them there and headed down the mountain. As we were leaving, a party of boisterous sightseers arrived, and may have scared the birds off the tower pads, but I’m not sure. In any case, an early arrival would seem to be the best strategy here. We walked down the road, with Xavier slowly following us down, stopping some distance back whenever we stopped or walked off the track. The birds were sparse, but all spectacular, and pretty easy to see. Without too much trouble we found ANDEAN TEAL (2 on a tarn a bit away from the road near a small rock shelter). Allan caught a brief glimpse of a VARIABLE HAWK, but it slipped over the ridgeline before I could get a look at it. Also present were BAR-WINGED and STOUT-BILLED CINCLODES, ANDEAN TIT-SPINETAIL (including one “family” group of about 6 birds), TAWNY ANTPITTA (several were running around in open view), PARAMO GROUND-TYRANT, and PLUMBEOUS SIERRA-FINCH.
We had to work a bit harder to find MANY-STRIPED CANASTERO, but perseverance paid, and we had good looks. We also heard a number of WHITE-CHINNED THISTLETAIL, and even managed a brief, but unsatisfying, look. While chasing after the Canastero, we happened upon two small mammals. I had no idea what they were (I had come woefully unprepared for mammals). Ironically, this may have been an advantage here, because I simply noted down what we saw, without any intent to “make” it into something unusual. According to a biologist we met later in the day, our notes best described a Pudu, a very rare alpine deer. Too bad we couldn’t manage a photo, or at least get to admire it longer.
From here we dropped down the east side of the pass, and after checking some windblown and bird-barren polylepis woods above the equally barren Papallacta Reservoir, we went back up the road to the Sendero del Arriero, barely 2 kilometers from the top of the Pass. This is a good patch of polylepis “forest” right next to the road, with some open grassland and, a few hundred meters up and over a hill, a hidden lake. I believe this is an area well described in the trip reports and birdfinding literature, but no one ever seems to use what I believe is its proper name. It is a remnant of the historical route into the Amazon basin. From prior reports, we knew that this is a hit-or-miss location—if you happen to stop when the flock that works the polylepis is around, it is an outstanding spot. Otherwise it is another chance to admire Great Thrushes and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Luck was with us today, and we “hit” the flock within five minutes of leaving the car. The first bird we saw in the flock was a nuthatch-like GIANT CONEBILL! Also in the flock were PEARLED TREERUNNER, WHITE-THROATED TYRANNULET, CINEROUS CONEBILL, BLACK-BACKED BUSH-TANAGER, more PLUMBEOUS SIERRA-FINCH, and HOODED SISKIN. Right at the little pass at the overlook to the lake was a reasonably cooperative GRASS WREN. Looking down into the pond we saw some distant duck-specks, and a closer pair of birds that proved to be ANDEAN COOT. We were quite surprised—I was not aware that they were in this particular stretch of the Andes, but we saw them well. With a scope we could have added a couple of additional species here, but this was the only time during the day that we really felt its lack.
As we made our way by the reservoir, we noted a couple of flyby YELLOW-BILLED PINTAIL. I also distinctly heard a GREATER YELLOWLEGS. Sadly, there were no gulls or other waterfowl present this day. With a couple of hours left, we dropped down to Guango Lodge for one last session at some hummingbird feeders. We paid a $5 day fee (which included excellent coffee), and sat awhile, enjoying the feeders and admiring the lodge. I would like to stay there some time. The feeder activity included SPECKLED HUMMINGBIRD, MOUNTAIN VELVETBREAST, COLLARED INCA, two more still-astounding SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRDS, TOURMALINE SUNANGEL, TYRIAN METALTAIL, LONG-TAILED SYLPH and, just before we left, WHITE-BELLIED WOODSTAR. The honorary hummingbird here was a MASKED FLOWERPIERCER.
With that, our time was up and we drove back to Quito. In our late afternoon stroll we stumbled upon a marvelous Andean music shop on Avenida Amazonas called Saucisa. In one of my other non-birding lives I am a musician, so I greatly enjoyed choosing from the excellent selection of Andean flutes. Our daily total showed the day as a “quality over quantity” experience—32 lifers, bringing the final trip total to 316 species.
January 31, 2004. My plane didn’t leave until later that evening, so we spent the day sightseeing in Quito. Since we only had this one day, to make it a bit easier we hired Renato Carillo, a young freelance guide who sometimes drives for TBL, for a half-day city tour. He took us on an informative and pleasant tour of the old town and other areas in Quito. He left us at the excellent National Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, which has an outstanding collection of Pre-Columbian art (including some nice ceramics and dazzling gold and platinum items). Shopping in the local market and a long dinner at a sidewalk café on Amazonas (great for people watching) concluded the day. Lucky Allan was heading on to the Galapagos, but I was heading home. The flight was uneventful, just the way I like them!
There are so many trip reports available on the web that cover the precise areas I went to, that I won’t bother with the usual detailed description of logistics. Instead, I’ll provide a few summary notes on trip resources and planning. Is there any other place in the world where there are so many excellent resources in a variety of media? An excellent, new field guide (but where are the hawks in flight plates!!?), superb CD’s of bird vocalizations including many of the rarest and shyest birds, dozens of well-written trip reports covering many different travel styles, ample travel books, good locally-produced websites on birds in the area. About the only thing I DIDN’T find was a good map for the Tandayapa and Mindo areas. Here, then, are a few annotated essentials.
Field Guide. Ridgely and Greenfield, Birds of Ecuador, is a very good field guide. They wisely put it in two volumes. The official Field Guide has plates and descriptions, including range information in Ecuador. One gripe: why aren’t there more pictures of hawks in flight, including a comparative plate? The companion volume on Status, Distribution and Taxonomy, has much more detail on those very subjects. I found the discussion of subspecies for each species account to be particularly impressive and useful. The field guide volume alone is big, but not too big for a shoulder bag. Some suggest cutting out the plates, but I don’t prefer that approach. Not only does it cut up a lovely book, but the descriptions contain critical information on identification, habits, vocalizations, and location in Ecuador. Most traveling birders won’t need to bring the Status etc. volume on their trip, but it is very nice to have as a home reference.
Bird Finding Guides. Wheatley’s Finding Birds in South America is still useful for trip planning but is now somewhat out of date for specific birdfinding, especially in the areas I went to. Clive Green, Birding Ecuador (2nd ed, 1996, with 2002 supplement) is better (and a lot longer and more detailed, to be sure), but still could use a thorough update. The Tandayapa Valley, for example, is barely mentioned. I believe some of the driving directions are now in need of repair, but then I am always a bit skeptical of specific driving direction in finding guides, since the roads, road conditions and road markings change frequently, and car odometers vary in accuracy. There is another guide mentioned favorably in trip reports, Williams, Best & Heijnen, A Guide to Birdwatching in Ecuador and the Galapagos. I didn’t see it (and believe it to be out of print), so I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I was told by a local birder that “all” of the finding guides are out of date now. Most useful for the Tandayapa Valley is an article by Tony Nunnery and Mark Welford in the American Birding Association’s Winging It newsletter (Volume 13, No. 12, December 2001), titled “Birding in the Tandayapa Valley.” It provides an excellent overview of birding in that area, including a handy sketch.
General Tour Book. The two that looked the best to me were the Lonely Planet and Footprint Guides. Both are widely available. There are others that seemed fine, too, but those two seemed to have a little more detail on the kinds of places birders end up.
Bird Recordings. John Moore Nature Records supplies us with an outstanding series of CD recordings of the birds of Ecuador. For the areas I covered I needed both the Birds of Northwest Ecuador—Volume I, the Upper Foothills and Subtropics as well as the Birds of the Ecuadoran Highlands--Upper Montane and Paramo Zones of Ecuador. There is minimal overlap, and many species in the upper Tandayapa Valley and Yanacocha are only in the Highlands volume, while the rest of Tandayapa, Mindo and Los Bancos are in Northwest Volume I. Pedro Vicente Maldonado is probably in the Lowlands Volume, but I didn’t buy that one so I’m not sure. In any case, they are all fantastic and well worth buying, if you can afford them. They provided excellent opportunities for preparation, good reference checking in the evenings while there, and in the few instances where I taped up a bird, served well for that too.
Maps. The overall country map published by International Travel Maps (ITMB Publishing) is fine, but it is of too large a scale to be any use in the more limited areas. The guide books mention topographical maps, but I didn’t have the time to hunt them down, and I don’t know how current they are.
Web Resources. The independent birder is really lucky here. There are an abundance of very well written trip reports and websites. Good places to start include Blake Maybank’s collection of trip reports at http://maybank.tripod.com/SouthAmerica/Ecuador/Ecuador-Index.htm , the Fat Birder at http://www.fatbirder.com/links_geo/america_south/equador.html and Birdtours.co’s site at http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/ecuador/index.htm, and one of my old favorites, “Where do you want to go Birding today?” at http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/saecuador.htm . Other good info, including some reports and other helpful tips, are on Worldtwitch at http://worldtwitch.com/new_world.htm . Tandayapa Bird Lodge has a very helpful annotated checklist and other information at www.tandayapa.com, with other information including trip reports at their related site, http://www.tropicalbirding.com/sam/sam_frameset.htm. There are many, many more good locations. Do a Google search for “Ecuador Birds” or “Tandayapa” or the like and you’ll see what I mean!
Guides. We did a “blended” trip, with some parts on our own and some parts with a professional guide. That seemed to satisfy both my desire to find some of my own birds (and be on our own, away from the crowd) and to come home with a nice long trip list. We were also able to avoid having to rent a car or worry incessantly about directions and travel logistics. That choice did come at a price, however. We made all of our arrangements through Tandayapa Bird Lodge, at www.tandayapa.com. I certainly recommend them. Their orientation is not to book things in the super-budget category, though, so someone on a tight budget would probably be better off just winging it. There is plenty of information on the web and in the tour books. There are many tour companies that schedule regular trips to Ecuador. Whether to go on one of those or not is, of course, a personal decision based on birding ability, personal temperament, time available and budget. Ecuador is an excellent place to bird on your own. If you do it on your own, it is likely that you won’t see as many species, but maybe that doesn’t really matter when what you see is so spectacular. How much is enough? Quito is an interesting city, and worth a visit in its own right. Renato Carillo is a pleasant fellow, fluent in English, who can guide you around for a reasonable rate. You can reach him by phone in Quito at 244-3985 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Francis Toldi, Burlingame, CA, USA