Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 15—23, 2009

Posted by Paul Greenfield

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Paul Greenfield

Paul Greenfield grew up near New York City and became interested in birds as a child. He received his B.F.A. from Temple University where he was an art major at the Tyler S...

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For a trip that is blessed with just so many highlights, it is often difficult to single out one specific event or set of events that stood out above and beyond the rest. The hummingbirds in general, at every place we visited, held us mesmerized with repeated close looks at intense interaction, sparkle, glitter, and glare. In all fairness, it is impossible to ignore our first morning at Yanacocha, for instance, and the insuperable views we all had of species like the unbelievably bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, and Tyrian Metaltail. But, to that same end, as we dropped in elevation, more and different "hummers" just kept on coming: White-whiskered and Tawny-bellied hermits, Green Thorntail, Andean Emerald, Purple-chested Hummingbird, the scarce Empress Brilliant, Buff-tailed and the stunning Velvet-purple coronets, Brown and Collared incas, Gorgeted Sunangel, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Booted Racket-tail, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Wedge-billed Hummingbird, along with Purple-throated and Little woodstars—to name only some of the species we gloated over on a daily basis!

Our second morning brought us literally face-to-face with perhaps a dozen forest denizens, at a most unlikely hot-spot, where species after species paraded by us as they ignored our presence (and that of a handful of taxis, buses, and passers-by) to feast on a dawn banquet of moths that had gathered there during the night. I would describe this unique birding experience as a combination of "relaxed intensity" together with some of the best, closest, and most satisfying looks one could ever hope to get of such species as Golden-headed Quetzal; Strong-billed and Montane woodcreepers; Golden-crowned Flycatcher; One-colored Becard; Brown-capped Vireo; Orange-bellied Euphonia; Tropical Parula; Slate-throated Whitestart; Dusky Bush-Tanager; Golden, Beryl-spangled, and Black-capped tanagers; Fawn-breasted Tanager; Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager; and Tricolored Brush-Finch. After about an hour we continued our birding along the Mindo entrance road where we picked up additional species at every turn.

Our following morning visit to the Paz Antpitta Reserve was magical indeed; after a winding pre-dawn drive to the site and a rather steep descent to a forest blind, we began by watching three noisy, scarlet, male Andean Cocks-of-the-rock at their display lek. This was followed by exceptionally close looks at a pair of Sickle-winged Guans that fed on fruit placed out for their pleasure, and ours! We continued, now more focused on the main reason for our presence here: our search for at least three species of antpittas—true skulkers of the forest floor of this lush, mountainous region. Our host, Mr. Angel Paz—a friendly local farmer, who rather recently "saw the light" and began befriending birds and protecting the very habitat he had been bent on slashing and burning some years before—quietly searched for these rarities, whistling and calling out to them by their individual Christian names, "María!," "Cariño!," "Susana!," "Willy!"…and each of them, one by one, at different locations (down along the river, at a stump set up at a staging area, in dense cover alongside the trail), came out to feed on giant earthworm morsels prepared especially for them. By mid-morning, as we headed back for an enjoyable breakfast of bolòn de verde, empanadas, fruit salad and café, we were met with a string of nectar feeders and yet another spectacular hummingbird show. And, as a special bonus, a rather large mixed foraging flock came through: Toucan Barbet, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Uniform Antshrike, Long-tailed Antbird, Flame-faced and Metallic-green tanagers, and Black-winged Saltator were among the many species observed.

How can I omit at least some reference to our first morning's visit along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute a couple of days later? After our successful quest for the spectacular Chocó-Andean endemic, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, a few minutes earlier, we slipped into the forest in search of yet another mystical Andean specialty. A somewhat distant call brought our attention to a pair of Ocellated Tapaculos from deep in the understory, and we followed a narrow trail back away from the road to where we felt we might have a chance to get at least a glimpse of one of these intricately plumaged creatures. It took some time before the calling birds moved closer to us, and little by little we were able to see this exotic species through dense Chusquea bamboo and moss-laden trunks and branches as it ran about without moving a single leaf! All the while a curious group of Turquoise Jays scolded from above.

These were just a few of the memorable experiences we enjoyed during the first days of our Northwestern Andean Slopes tour, but perhaps there is one special highlight that does stand out after all—our morning at Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary, a remnant patch of protected forest that is mostly isolated by sad evidence of typical land use methods that have become so prevalent in the Neotropics: vast plantations of oil palm, heart-of-palm, and balsa trees. We arrived fairly early that morning, serenaded by some varied bird song as we organized ourselves at the reserve parking lot. As had been much the norm for this trip, due to a strangely prolonged and abnormal dry spell that has pounded Ecuador during what should be the beginning months of the rainy season, bird-song died out quickly and it was anybody's guess as to whether we would have any luck at finding some of the special bird species we were seeking on this day. We walked just a short distance over to the canopy tower (a forty-five-foot-high construction that looks out over the forest) set on an elevated portion of the reserve and proceeded to wait for some action. Little came, and at just about the time when our group began to get impatient and start contemplating a Plan "B," it all began to happen.

It started slowly, with a bird here, another one there…nothing fancy yet, but slowly activity grew. A Laughing Falcon began to call; Steve played back some tape and the bird came flying in and landed in the large neighboring tree to afford us splendid views. We rather quickly had to forget about this wonderful sight, as a mixed foraging flock began to make its presence known…and from there on, it was non-stop for the next three hours! Being up in the canopy was just perfect for viewing species that are often real neck-breakers, but the viewing was 360° so we were constantly redirecting ourselves, from the fruiting Cecropia trees on one side, the large Ficus on the other, the dead snag to our left, and so on. It was basically like a "Big Sit," birding from a 10²-meter platform; and what birding it was. Included among the 80+ species we recorded there were Barred Puffbird; Orange-fronted Barbet; Pale-mandibled Araçari; Olivaceous Piculet; Spotted Woodcreeper; Checker-throated and Dot-winged antwrens; Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant; Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher; Cinnamon Becard; Black-tipped Cotinga; Slate-throated Gnatcatcher; Lesser Greenlet; Orange-bellied Euphonia; Guira, White-shouldered, Lemon-rumped, Gray-and-gold, Blue-whiskered, Emerald, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, Blue-necked, and Golden-hooded tanagers; Yellow-tufted, Scarlet-thighed, Blue, and Scarlet-breasted dacnises; Green and Purple honeycreepers; and Swallow Tanager.

We finally decided to climb down the tower and explore a couple of forest trails which ended up being pretty intense, as a fairly large mixed understory foraging flock entertained us before lunch; among the species were Cinnamon Woodpecker, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Spot-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Slaty antwrens, and Tawny-crested Tanager. Before our early departure, we picked up another handful of important species as we birded the roadside to the edge of the reserve. Northwestern Ecuador offers great and varied birding and fine viewing opportunities, and this November trip was no exception. Sharing this experience with all of you, and especially having Steve Hilty along, made it very special for me.