Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 10—18, 2013
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Any way you slice it, northwestern Ecuador offers a lot for the world birder. It holds all the challenges one would expect anywhere in the Neotropics; its huge number of species, lush vegetation, and countless ecosystems and niches can seem daunting to say the least. Just glancing over the region’s field checklist can seem crazy—dozens of hummingbirds, flycatchers, and tanagers; family names that seem unworldly (i.e., furnariids, tapaculos, antpittas, and cotingas to name a few), and the pages go on and on. Our weeklong Northwestern Andean Slopes tour is aimed at making some sense out of all of this by focusing on a relatively finite area that offers some of the best birding conditions found anywhere, with a lot of unique bioregional endemic species, and based out of a single lodge.
We initiated our journey at Yanacocha Reserve, in the high temperate zone just northwest of Quito, where hummingbirds dominate the elfin-forest and scrub habitat found there. We had repeatedly fine looks at Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sword-billed Hummingbird (a mind-blower!), and Great Sapphirewing at the reserve’s nectar feeders; female Rainbow-bearded Thornbills were observed, one at its nest and another feeding on small composite flowers. We came across other highland birds and a few small mixed-species foraging flocks with several “non”-hummers along our walk, including Tawny Antpitta; Blackish Tapaculo; White-banded and White-throated tyrannulets; Tufted Tit-Tyrant; a family group of Rufous Wrens; Hooded, Black-chested, and Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers; Blue-backed Conebill; Glossy, Black, and Masked flowerpiercers; and Rufous-naped Brush-Finch. After a packed field lunch, we headed downslope along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute towards our final destination, making a few stops along the way. A somewhat out-of-place Andean Lapwing was spotted in cattle pasture just below Yanacocha, and we continued our descent to Bellavista Cloudforest Reserve with a brief stop for coffee and birds. Their nectar feeders were pretty active with Gorgeted Sunangel, Violet-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, and Purple-throated Woodstar; not bad! As the afternoon began to fade, we had only a little more time to make a couple more stops—with some good fortune: a pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans and a nice male Masked Trogon were crowd-pleasers, along with a beautiful Pearled Treerunner and a band of Russet-crowned Warblers—before rolling into Séptimo Paraíso, our official headquarters for the week to come.
Our Northwestern Andean Slopes tour tends not to follow a set itinerary, although we focus on a sort of finite grouping of great birding sites and areas, most of them quite close to our lodge. This works well because one can never predict what we will see or how the weather and general birding conditions will be, and this way we have flexibility to customize our activities. Our first and last mornings of birding took us just above our lodge to the Mindo turn-off (the “Y” de Mindo, as it is known) where a couple of fruiting trees at this busy intersection were really teeming with birds. Great, close looks at a rather wide range of species were enjoyed by all: a pair of Masked Trogons (point-blank!); Strong-billed and Montane woodcreepers; Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager; Black-capped, Beryl-spangled, Golden, Fawn-breasted, and Swallow tanagers; Tricolored Brush-Finch; Dusky Bush-Tanager; and Yellow-bellied Siskin were among the species that stopped by. We made three visits to Milpe Bird Sanctuary, where their plantain banana feeders were very productive (it was hard to pull ourselves away) and we had incredible looks at Rufous Motmot; Red-headed Barbet; Pale-mandibled Araçari; Chocó Toucan; Black-cheeked Woodpecker; White-lined, Golden-naped, Blue-necked, Rufous-throated, Flame-faced, and Silver-throated tanagers; and Buff-throated Saltator, along with Thick-billed and Orange-bellied euphonias. At one point, a hungry Tiny Hawk watched over the scene even more intently than we did, but never got up the nerve to strike. Along their forest trails and at edge we encountered more goodies: Bronze-winged Parrot, Russet Antshrike, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Esmeraldas and Zeledon’s antbirds, Spotted Woodcreeper, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated foliage-gleaners, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Golden-winged and (only one) Club-winged manakins, Scaly-breasted Wren, Ecuadorian Thrush, Chocó Warbler, Green Honeycreeper, Black-winged Saltator, Orange-billed Sparrow, and Ochre-breasted Tanager. We also visited the Milpe Gardens sector of the reserve where Lanceolated Monklet, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, a nesting Ornate Flycatcher, and Chocó Warbler were memorable. Also, a Rufous-winged Tyrannulet showed up at Milpe’s botanical gardens.
Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary was the lowest elevation site visited, where its canopy tower, roadside, and edge were quite birdy; the forest interior was mysteriously quiet though. To mention some of our finds: Swallow-tailed, Hook-billed, and Double-toothed kites; Dusky Pigeon; Cinnamon Woodpecker; Collared Forest-Falcon; Blue-headed Parrot; Red-lored Amazon; Pacific, Slaty, and Dot-winged antwrens; Streak-headed and Black-striped woodcreepers; Brown-capped, Yellow-crowned, Sooty-headed, and Golden-faced tyrannulets; White-bearded Manakin; Slate-throated Gnatcatcher (really cute!); Olive-crowned Yellowthroat; White-shouldered, Tawny-crested, Gray-and-gold, Rufous-winged, and Scarlet-browed tanagers; Blue Dacnis; and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting, perhaps inspiring experiences we had was our morning with Angel Paz, a local farmer who has taken to birding like few have—an innovator par excellence! He worked hard to show us some of his avian “friends” and we were able to see quite a few great species during our visit with him: Crested and Sickle-winged guans, roosting Rufous-bellied Nightjar and Common Potoo, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Moustached Antpitta (Susan was her name!), Yellow-breasted Antpitta (Willy!), Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Chakira), Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Andean Cock-of-the-rock (at their lek!), and Olivaceous Piha (at nest, with a chick!).
The Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute and, on our last day, the foothills at Alambi Cloud Forest Reserve, gave us a broad spectrum of birds from the subtropic and temperate zones. White-rumped Hawk, Crested Quetzal, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Streak-headed Antbird, White-capped Dipper, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and Yellow-tufted Dacnis were noteworthy. But a trip to Ecuador and especially its northwestern region stands out for its hummingbird diversity, which we experienced full-on at various sites (with 32 species recorded in all). A few of the additions to our first day’s tally included White-whiskered Hermit, Wedge-billed Hummingbird, Purple-crowned Fairy, Green Thorntail, Brown Inca, Velvet-purple Coronet, Green-crowned and Empress brilliants, Western and Andean emeralds, and Purple-chested Hummingbird. So in the end, our Northwestern Andean Slopes tour brought a lot to the table—great birds, fond memories, and even some fine photographs!