Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 18—26, 2008
Posted by David Wolf
Along with our birding there were two consistent themes to our week on the east slope of the Andes. One was the spectacular scenery. This transect through the mountains is stunning, from the snow-capped peaks and waving grass of the páramo down the deep valleys to the luxuriant forests of the foothills. The other was water—and the amazing cycle from the Andes to the Amazon and back. We spent time in the clouds, under them, and a few times getting wet from them. They hung along the high ridges and mystically swept up the valleys, condensing and releasing moisture to join the rushing rivers cutting their way down the Andes. Eventually, of course, this water reaches the Amazonian lowlands, where it evaporates and rises in the heat of the Tropics, only to hit the cool air of the mountains and begin the cycle anew.
We began our explorations with a brief sampling of the northwestern slopes near Quito, a region worth a week in its own right. Here we watched breathlessly as Angel Paz called to his "trained" Giant Antpitta. "Maria—venga, venga, venga!" Like magic she appeared, to feast on the worms he had laid out. The Yellow-breasted Antpitta was only a bit more reluctant to show, and then there was Shakira, the Ochre-breasted, with her unique shake of the body. To see any antpitta well is remarkable! We also began our hummingbird extravaganza here, and by the end of the day we had seen 18 species of these delicate jewels. The next morning we birded our way up through pleasant farm country to the treeless páramo, an exhilarating day that culminated in a male Chimborazo Hillstar in the highest treeline scrub and then an incredibly close pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at the very top of the mountain. The following morning was wet and the birding tough in the temperate shrub zone, but eventually we found a nice mixed-flock, while lower downslope we studied still more hummingbirds, including the incredible Sword-billed (ridiculous at the feeders!) and rarities like Mountain Avocetbill and Glowing Puffleg. A Crested Quetzal beside the road capped the day, and we headed on to San Ysidro Labrador, our headquarters for exploring the mid-elevations.
This private reserve is located in the heart of the lush subtropical zone, and in the days to come we ranged out to bird the luxuriant forests at various elevations. A recurring theme was "mixed-flocks," active groups of multiple species that forage through the forest together, creating a feast or famine situation for birders. We "feasted" regularly, particularly enjoying the tanagers that dominate the flocks, their names hinting at their fabulous colors: Saffron-crowned, Flame-faced, Blue-necked, and Blue-winged Mountain, to mention but a few. Tagging along with them were Pearled Treerunners, woodcreepers, flycatchers, and more, duller in color but interesting all the same. Ironically, the largest flocks encountered were on a very wet day on the outer ridge, and they were insanely active in the rain. Initially it was hard to see much color or keep our binoculars dry, but then those brilliant—and rare—Vermilion Tanagers showed up in our faces and it was all worth it!
A few other highlights of the week included the incredibly calm Masked Trogons seen regularly around the lodge, a flock of noisy but elusive White-capped Tanagers, an amazing Amazonian Umbrellabird that sat up on an exposed perch for more than 15 minutes, Torrent Ducks on the picturesque rivers, a kinkajou by day, and by night the special "San Ysidro" owl as it sat just a few feet from us. The true identity of this owl has yet to be revealed—it combines characters of both the Black-banded and the Black-and-white Owls—and it is a fitting symbol of how little we really know about these beautiful mountain forests.