Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Mar 01—09, 2008
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Once again, our Northwestern Andean Slopes tour confirmed just how far birding has come in this fascinating little country. Neotropical birding is always challenging, with its varied habitats and climatic conditions, dense vegetation, and the identity of so many species to deal with, but Ecuador has developed some of the finest conditions for seeing and enjoying birds to be found anywhere.
Watching dozens of hummingbirds at feeding stations located at various altitudinal elevations as they feed side by side, chase one another, display at each other, and interact in an almost constant frenzy, as well as seeing each species time and time again, is the perfect way to learn to identify these confusing little devils! And what a way to see them! There were gasps—oohs and aahs with each flash of iridescence. The highlights of our Yanacocha stop, the first on our very first morning: a pair of Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, Great Sapphirewing, and Buff-winged Starfrontlet, plus Glossy and Masked flowerpiercers—all at the same set of feeders! I suppose one could get tired of such easy viewing conditions, but not easily, as we all seemed to remain mesmerized at each feeding station we visited…and there were quite a few on this tour: at Séptimo Paráiso, with some 14 species, or Paz Antpitta Reserve with 16, just to mention two. Unforgettable looks at so many unforgettable birds.
Okay, so maybe not everybody is a hummingbird fan. I can understand that (well, not really!). Our visit to the street light at the "Y" de Mindo was another unbelievable experience, giving us all some of the best and closest looks at several special montane beauties one could possibly hope for, including incredibly close studies of a pair of oblivious Strong-billed Woodcreepers, Montane Woodcreeper, Streak-capped Treehunter, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Tricolored Brush-Finch, Three-striped Warbler, Slate-throated Whitestart, Brown-capped Vireo, and even a few spiffed-up Blackburnian Warblers getting ready for their upcoming northward migration. It gets better: a seemingly tame pair of Masked Trogons hung around right in front of us during our entire visit, a Crimson-rumped Toucanet decided to join in, and perhaps the most favored treat of all was a Toucan Barbet threesome that came in to feed. Oh, I almost forgot—all this activity was brought to us by the hundreds (or more) of moths that were attracted to the light throughout the night. We even viewed a fine Black-and-white Owl here on one pre-dawn as we headed off to Río Silanche.
This could only be equalled by the most amazing of experiences—our morning spent with Angel Paz. Our pre-dawn arrival at Paz Antpitta Reserve began with our steep descent to witness an active lek of stunning Andean Cocks-of-the-rock. This was followed by telescope views of a roosting pair of Rufous-bellied Nighthawks and a couple of amazing encounters with "María," a very obliging Giant Antpitta who stood only a few feet away as she gulfed down bite-sized earthworm chunks. Before our visit was over (topped off by an excellent mid-morning breakfast of homemade "empanadas" and "bolónes de verde"), we experienced encounters with "Susan" and "Florcita," two wonderful Moustached Antpittas, along with the newest addition to Angel's "collection"—"Shakira," a charming Ochre-breasted Antpitta. Additionally, there were the great hummingbird feeders with a few fabulous additions to our already growing species list, followed by sightings of Powerful Woodpecker, Red-billed Parrots, and a slew of new montane bird species.
Río Silanche and Milpe Bird Sanctuaries, or the "Paseo del Quinde" Ecoroute, cannot be left out; and what about Mirador Río Blanco—each held new and exceptional experiences for viewing birds. A defensive Plumbeous Hawk flew up and perched atop a palm spike, calling and repositioning itself in response to tape playback, offering super looks from the canopy tower at Río Silanche. Who ever heard of a band of Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers coming in to sip from nectar feeders, along with 12 hummingbird species? Our various stops along the Ecoroute not only brought us that experience, but also perhaps one of the most memorable of the trip, when a handsome Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, another spectacular Chocó-Andean specialty, silently snuck up behind us and proceeded to sit…and feed…and sit, for all to see and study, digiscope and photograph for around an hour!
These and other like experiences make this Northwestern Andean Slopes tour special, not only as the "gateway" to birding this, one of earth's most biodiverse countries, but also as a first step to deciphering and understanding the incredible Neotropics as a whole.