Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 11—19, 2012
Posted by Paul Greenfield
The Ecuadorian Northwestern Andean Slopes experience is hard to beat. This November's trip report will, sadly, have to almost ignore a number of superb experiences in order to leave room for the newest and hottest bit of news.
It's unfortunate that I won't be able to describe this trip's Angel Paz experience, with close-up looks at some fabulous regulars like Giant and Ochre-breasted antpittas, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, and a covey of Dark-backed Wood-Quails, or even its newest addition, a most congenial Ocellated Tapaculo. I will regrettably have to glide over our numerous hummingbird encounters with Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, Booted Racket-tail, Violet-tailed Sylph, White-tailed Hillstar, Great Sapphirewing, Velvet-purple Coronet, Wedge-billed Hummingbird, Empress Brilliant, and Purple-chested Hummingbird among the 33 species we enjoyed. There is little space to go on about our point-blank views of a pair of Toucan Barbets or the Blue-fronted Parrotlet threesome we came across at Milpe; the Little Cuckoo we found above 1,700 meters along the "Paseo del Quinde" Ecoroute; the treeful of Chocó and Chestnut-mandibled toucans at Milpe; the Strong-billed Woodcreeper devouring a hefty tarantula; the enthusiastic pair of Rufous Antpittas at Yanacocha; the close-up Black-capped Tyrannulet along the upper Ecoroute; and the endearing Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher at Río Silanche. No room for tales of Orange-breasted Fruiteaters or Yellow-vented Woodpeckers; Andean Cock-of-the-rock; Olivaceous Piha; Golden-winged, Red-capped, and displaying Club-winged manakins; bathing Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers; Grass-green or Gray-and-gold tanagers; and stunning Yellow-tufted Dacnis. This time I will have to concentrate on an unscheduled encounter—a true mind-blower!
Some time prior to our Northwestern Andean Slopes Tour, I had heard about an incredible bird sighting that was being monitored by a young German woman whom I had met some years before. Juan, our trusty Juan, made contact to see if, during our tour, we would have the chance of actually seeing the bird in question; the word was, "There's a good chance," and we were told to keep in touch to see if the conditions remained stable. During our Tinalandia Pre-trip we made continuous contact and even mentioned to the group that, if they agreed, we might make a slight change in our planned itinerary, but only if we got the okay from our contact…very sleuthy indeed. As we arrived at Sachatamia, after our first day of birding at Yanacocha and the "Paseo del Quinde" Ecoroute, Juan turned to me and whispered, "It's got to be tomorrow, early…the ants are moving." Before we disembarked from the van, I informed the group of the news to see if they would be up for the adventure. I made it crystal-clear that it might not even work out…it was the chance we would have to take. They were all in. Great group!
We packed a box breakfast and lunch and were on the road by 4:30 the next morning, following text-message instructions on how to get to the site: "Remember, you have to park 200 meters before the gate, the road gets real slippery after that," were the words that I clearly recall. Well, after one wrong turn and a bit of reviewing of the message, trying to see if the instructions looked like what we were seeing along the road, in the dark, we made it. As we broke into our breakfast and began to get ourselves together to advance on foot, an Ochre-breasted Tanager sang above us (sounding like several different species at the same time). This must be a good sign, I thought. As we advanced, we were met by a young man, Wilo, who told us that we would need to walk to a certain nearby point in the forest and then wait; reluctantly he said, "Nicole hasn't relocated the ants." This was a distinct code for: "hmmm, we might be in trouble." We arrived at the "point" and everybody quickly got to chatting and story-telling…I couldn't see or hear a bird! Out of nowhere, Nicole appeared with a pleasant but nervous smile—she confirmed what Wilo had said, seeming to be looking for an expression of approval on my face. She would return to the depths of the forest to search for the ants. I smiled and told her that we were fine just waiting for her to do her magic, and she disappeared. Some 40 minutes passed, maybe more, and Nicole returned. By then a distinct drizzle had begun and she looked even more nervous. We all (well, not all) knew that rain was not a good thing right now. The good news was that she had found the bivouac (the ants) and they had begun to move a little…at least something. Nicole suggested that we all get out of the rain and hang out at their little volunteer's station—a pleasant, well-built wooden house where volunteers could stay. We walked in the rain to the station, and the chatting and story-telling continued, accompanied by some welcome coffee and tea. Thick fog cut our visibility; we could hear a flock of Bronze-winged Parrots right above us and eventually got looks at a few birds…we could sort of make out a field mark or two. A few other birds came in, and as we were sort of forgetting why we were there, Wilo signaled to me that the ants were on the move—our bird had been spotted.
We quickly headed back in single file, slowing only to help each other carefully step down a few embankments so that nobody would slip and fall. We were led off the main trail and through a relatively untangled understory to where we could make out Nicole facing away from us, but speaking in a sweet, soft voice. I could sort of hear her say, "Venga, venga," ("come, come,") and suddenly she looked back at us. There, just a few feet in front of her was a Banded Ground-Cuckoo. She handed it a green grasshopper (she had pulled it from a small hand-fashioned cage strapped to her belt). The ground-cuckoo ate the bait and looked around. I had been waiting 40 years to see this species…I could not believe my eyes. We quietly observed the show for some forty minutes or so. This is a species that, prior to 2005 perhaps, had never been seen by any ornithologist or birder—it had just about entered into the Hall of Ecuadorian Mythology when it began to show itself at a scattered selection of sites in Ecuador's Chocó Endemic Bioregion. This was only day two of our tour.