Ecuador: The Southern Andes Aug 16—27, 2010
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Birding is always challenging, and in the Neotropics it can be very much so—while at the same time exhilarating. Our August Southern Andes tour in Ecuador had its distinct challenges, and its fair share of excitement. First of all, the weather was surprisingly uniformly sunny, and anyone who knows the Andes would tell you, "It's gonna be tough." I'd never seen it that way for so many days, and it kept me planning and scheming as to how we would make the best out of it. On the other hand, boy, did we enjoy beautiful scenery; we could practically see Peru from Cuenca, and that's a long way off!
Our first morning was the perfect orientation. We started with a Black-capped Tyrannulet, a glowing Blue-and-black Tanager, and enjoyed a pleasant day picking up our first new species around Llaviuco Lagoon; Ecuadorian Rail, Shining Sunbeams, a close Rainbow Starfrontlet, and even our first glimpse at Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan were memorable. Our second day was spent adding bird after bird in the high temperate and paramo zones of El Cajas National Park…who said the sun's a killer? The afternoon was birdless, but what a morning! We had exceptional looks at so many species. A stunning male Ecuadorian Hillstar bombed us, Blue-mantled Thornbill sat for us, the rare and local Tit-like Dacnis was seen at four or five separate areas, no need for binoculars for a Giant Conebill, the local endemic Violet-throated Metaltail came in close, and a Many-striped Canastero decided to sit atop a low pine tree…and they kept coming.
We then headed southward from Cuenca in blazing sun, but an obliging White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant was the highlight. Our stay at Copalinga, in the eastern foothills, with visits to the Bombuscaro entrance of Podocarpus National Park, did not disappoint one bit: a sharp male Spangled Coquette, Wire-crested Thorntail, Coppery-chested Jacamar, the recently described Foothill Elaenia, Amazonian Umbrellabird, and a "truckload" of dazzling tanagers, including Orange-eared, Guira, Golden-eared, Paradise, Green-and-gold, Yellow-bellied, Blue-necked, and Spotted among them. The "Old" Zamora Road was as productive as ever with point-blank views of Cliff Flycatcher, a spectacular male Andean Cock-of-the-rock feeding on Miconia berries only meters away at eye level, several Chestnut-vented Conebills, and even excellent close looks at some obscure flycatchers like Red-billed and Ecuadorian tyrannulets, and Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant. A small band of White-breasted Parakeets blessed us with their presence too.
We continued south again to Tapichalaca Reserve and one of the great highlights of this entire region—the Jocotoco Antpitta, at our feet…4 of them! It is truly impossible to describe the sensation of sharing this moment with fellow birders, knowing all too well just how rare, local, and difficult-to-see this species really is. Indescribable! Birding this area and downslope past the village of Valladolid brought more avian treasures, in a very interesting sector of the country that combines Andean slope species together with Amazonian and Marañón endemics. The weather seemed still unfavorable, but the birds kept on responding with Marañón Thrush and a group of Rufous-fronted Thornbirds working on a nest, great tanagers, and two highlights: Highland Elaenia and Chestnut-crested Cotinga—two rare and local species in Ecuador; they must favor sunshine! The following morning we birded our way out of Tapichalaca back towards Loja, and a rather healthy mixed foraging flock afforded us great looks at more Andean specialties, including a band of Citrine Warblers, Blue-backed Conebills, a very generous Black-headed Hemispingus, and colorful Golden-crowned Tanagers among the attendees.
The following day was our last full one, and I had already predicted that sun would really hurt the midday period; we headed out early to the Cajanuma sector of Podocarpus National Park, worked our way up the entrance road, and hung out a bit around the park station. The birding was characteristically good all morning; we came upon a couple of mixed foraging flocks with beautiful, singing Red-hooded Tanagers. Grass-green Tanagers also showed themselves wonderfully. Black-and-chestnut Eagle soared on by, searching for breakfast. A close foraging flock that showed up inside forest understory along one of the trails near the station brought us superb close looks at Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Pearled Treerunner, Superciliaried Hemispingus, and Russet-crowned Warbler. We decided to wait out the midday sun down in the valley at the local botanical gardens and had lunch near Vilcabamba, only to return to Cajanuma in the afternoon, which worked out well. By the time we began our final descent from the park, birds began to get active, and we came upon a Bearded Guan, quietly feeding along the road.
Our final morning, before our flight back to Quito, was spent working our way down from humid to dry habitat, to the airport in the Catamayo Valley, where we found a variety of new species, including a few we missed in other areas. Croaking Ground-Dove, Pacific Pygmy-Owl, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, Long-tailed Mockingbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Fasciated Wren, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Saffron Finch, and Lesser Goldfinch were among the species we encountered.
This was a very enjoyable trip which included many close encounters with so many wonderful species from this small slice of Ecuador.