Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 10—20, 2013
Posted by David Wolf
Sometimes just one experience sums up a whole trip. For this year’s “Eastern Slope of the Andes” tour, it came on our final day. We had already spent a wonderful week birding our way from the tropical foothills up to the high peaks of the Andes, and dawn on our last day revealed clear skies and stunning views of snow-capped Antisana Volcano, our destination for the day. The weather held and was still nice when we reached the páramo on the flanks of the mountain several hours later. Here we stopped to enjoy the numerous Carunculated Caracaras, Andean Lapwings, Andean Gulls, and cinclodes parading around on the grasslands, your leader scanning while the photographers snapped away. Far away in the distance a large herd of cattle dotted the hillsides, but then one of them moved in an odd manner, a blurry shape that seemed to jump a little. Cows don’t do that—and a quick scope view revealed that we had condors on the ground, something that just doesn’t happen! We piled into the van, raced back down the road to a better vantage point, and soon found ourselves staring in awe as 5 magnificent Andean Condors picked and scrapped over a cow carcass less than a quarter-mile from us! It was then that we realized there were more birds in the air, and before long we had 8 individuals on the ground at once, including adults and sub-adults of both sexes. It was thrilling to watch these huge birds soar in and land as they arrived and departed, and in the end it was likely that we saw at least 15 different individuals. Words simply don’t convey the magic of this lucky experience with the bird most evocative of the Andes!
The previous week had been good to us too. The scenery was amazing and the birds of the mountains generally put on a great show. We spent our week working from the bottom to the top of our transect, beginning with a little birding around Coca that yielded several pairs of Collared Plovers and nesting Cattle Tyrants, the latter a species only recently found in the country for the first time. At Wildsumaco, a wonderful new lodge in the foothills, we found the feeders swarming with hummingbirds, including foothill rarities like Napo Sabrewing, Ecuadorian Piedtail, and Black-throated Brilliant. Colorful tanagers regularly visited the fruiting Cecropia trees visible from the lodge porch, with colorful Red-headed Barbets tagging along with them. Here we also observed nesting Lettered and Many-banded aracaris; Chestnut-fronted Macaws in good numbers; a surprise Amazonian Umbrellabird that popped up onto a distant snag; and a pair of cute Ochre-breasted Antpittas being fed worms.
From Wildsumaco we moved up into the heart of the lush subtropical zone, after chasing swarms of colorful butterflies and a pair of White-capped Dippers at the Rio Hollin cascades. A stop along a rushing river produced a male Torrent Duck guarding two foraging ducklings, while the female rested on a rock far downstream. We ended that day with a super-close look at two of “the mystery owls of San Ysidro,” a black-and-white type owl that may well represent an undescribed taxon. The next morning we found a veritable parade of smaller birds coming to the lodge lights to search for moths attracted during the night, but we dropped them fast when a pair of Crested Quetzals appeared around the parking area and lingered for over 30 minutes. All the while a pair of incredibly bold Masked Trogons sat calmly nearby, at times almost in the same binocular field! Later that day we lucked onto a gorgeous Black-billed Mountain-Toucan feeding quietly in a roadside tree and we ended with Green-and-black Fruiteaters in the fading light. Our second day here brought numerous colorful tanagers and, for some, a successful hike into the beautiful primary forest to observe several displaying Andean Cocks-of-the-rock.
From San Ysidro, it was up to the temperate zone for a stop at Guango Lodge. Here we found the feeders alive with hummingbirds, including the almost unbelievable Sword-billed, while Turquoise Jays feeding fledglings provided colorful entertainment. The next morning we ventured above treeline to the grassy wonderland known as the páramo, but an unrelenting cold, wet wind kept the birds quiet—and the birders chilly. That afternoon we found better conditions on the sheltered slopes just below the clouds as we birded the dense scrub right at treeline. This difficult environment is home to some very obscure birds. A mixed-flock of conebills, hemispingus, and others was nice, but the thrill came as the fog parted and we spotted an incredible Black-chested Mountain-Tanager just a few feet from us. There proved to be several in the area, and off and on for 20 minutes we watched these big, colorful, and rarely seen tanagers as they very quietly fed on the large buds of the shrubs.
All too soon our time in the beautiful Andes was over!