Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 15—24, 2011

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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"Simply spectacular" pretty well sums up our idyllic days spent roaming the eastern slope of the Ecuador Andes! The scenery was amazing, the birds of the mountains put on a great show for us, the plants were interesting, and even the weather generally behaved.

When we first gathered as a group to begin our explorations of the Andes, I was asked if we would see toucans on this trip. "Well, not likely, as they are birds of the Tropics and this is a mountain trip," I replied. "Maybe, if we're very lucky, we'll see a few." So, of course, that set the stage for this to be "the toucan trip of all-time!" We ended up finding 7 delightful species in this charismatic group. To a large degree, this was due to the inclusion of Wildsumaco. This fantastic new lodge is located in the foothills where the tropical and subtropical zones meet, and here we found noisy Black-mandibled and Channel-billed toucans calling from exposed perches, a secretive but responsive Golden-collared Toucanet hiding in the canopy, and a Chestnut-tipped Toucanet sneaking into a fruiting tree. Here too we found hummingbird feeders teeming with a variety of quality foothill species, gained an introduction to the dazzling tanagers so prominent in the Andes, and saw other special birds like the Coppery-chested Jacamar, Gilded and Red-headed barbets, and a remarkably responsive White-backed Fire-eye.

From Wildsumaco we moved upslope into the heart of the lush subtropical zone. At our very first stop in this environment, at the pass on Huacamayo Ridge, the fog suddenly parted—and a small mixed-flock of birds appeared right in front of us. The most spectacular may have been the Grass-green Tanagers, but to see the elegantly-patterned Pearled Treerunners from only a few feet away was amazing. And that was before the male Green-and-black Fruiteater popped in amidst them and proceeded to sit perfectly still for 5 minutes, periodically emitting its high-pitched song.

After an introductory first day at San Ysidro, with Masked Trogons, Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, and a plethora of smaller birds, our second day here proved to be hot and sunny. One does not want this type of weather for birding the subtropical forests, for it keeps bird activity suppressed and hard to find. And it's true that we did not find much in the way of mixed-flocks or small birds that day. Instead, the "spectaculars" came out for us. I never would have guessed that these conditions would produce this run of top-quality sightings in one day: a female Golden-headed Quetzal feeding a barely-fledged chick (by regurgitating a fruit, clamping the fruit in its bill, and then allowing the chick to pick at it); a family group of Powerful Woodpeckers down low and close along the roadside; White-rumped Hawks up and soaring; a magnificent pair of rarely-seen Black-billed Mountain-Toucans; Torrent Ducks bobbing up onto the rocks amidst a rushing mountain river; a pair of quetzals exploring nest sites; and finally, for some, Andean Cocks-of-the-rock displaying at point-blank range as the day closed.

Next we moved upslope to the temperate zone, only to encounter rain and chilly weather. Our day in the Papallacta area did not look great at dawn…until we realized that we had a spectacled bear in sight right from the hotel parking lot! We had been told that this rare animal was being seen at a cow carcass high up on the mountainside, but had no idea that it might be so visible, nor that there was more than one animal visiting the bait. This was a lifer sighting for Paul, who has lived in Ecuador for over 40 years now, and we looked at the bears every chance we got!

Our final day afield took us to the páramos of the Antisana Reserve, "at the top" of our transect. Clouds hung around the mountains as we left, and again the day looked like it would be damp and chilly. Perhaps because of this weather, our very first stop produced four young Andean Condors still sitting on the cliffs for scope views; they weren't up and flying yet for the day. Then, almost miraculously, the weather began to clear. By the time we reached the high-elevation grasslands, spectacular Antisana volcano was looming over us, as we delighted in close looks at a great variety of special birds of the highest elevations, including 155 Carunculated Caracaras parading around; a flock of the threatened Andean Ibis; lovely Andean Lapwings; two Aplomado Falcons perched for scope views; and both species of cinclodes side by side for comparison. The ultimate moment came as we stood gazing in awe at the snow-capped peak after an Ecuadorian lunch at the rustic old hacienda, when we spotted distant condors circling the immense snow-capped peak! It could not have been a more evocative scene, and was truly an exhilarating end to our grand transect of the Andes.