Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 16—26, 2014
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 second to last day. We had already spent a wonderful week birding from the tropical foothills up to the tree-line scrub, and now it was time to visit the páramo, the wet alpine zone so characteristic of the Ecuadorian Andes.
Dawn revealed clear skies and stunning views of snow-capped Antisana Volcano as we drove the short distance up to Papallacta Pass, our destination for the morning. Here a whole new set of birds awaited us, those of the highest elevations, like Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-striped Canastero, Tawny Antpitta, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. All of them appeared right on cue and the weather was still nice, so up to “the towers” we headed. At almost 13,500 ft., we had to be careful not to over-exert, so while the group compared the two cinclodes present, and discovered an Ecuadorian Hillstar, I went on ahead to scan the cushion-plant bogs and low ridges. To my utter astonishment I quickly picked out a Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, a bird incredibly reminiscent of ptarmigan in behavior and looks—one that is found only at the most extreme elevations and is far from common or “guaranteed” on any trip. It was some distance away, so as the group breathlessly caught up to me and struggled to see it, I decided to circle upslope and try to push it slowly down for better views. By then we had realized that there were two birds present. It took patience and a few slips in the mud, but as I slowly approached them, the confused birds proceeded to walk down a gully until eventually they were caught right between us, not 20 feet away! They stayed and stayed, not knowing which way to retreat, revealing every detail of their intricate feather patterns as we gawked in wonder and the cameras fired away. I just stood there grinning from ear to ear, delighted with finding these amazing birds in this exhilarating and awesome environment!
The previous week had been good to us too. The scenery was amazing and the birds of the mountains put on a great show for us, even if the weather didn’t at times. The first major stop on our transect was in the foothills at Wild Sumaco, where an incredible assortment of special hummingbirds awaited us at the feeders, including Wire-crested Thorntail, Black-throated Brilliant, Gould’s Jewelfront, Napo Sabrewing, Many-spotted Hummingbird, and, best of all, a male Rufous-vented Whitetip. Before the advent of this feeding station very few of these birds were ever spotted in the wild, so lush and dense is the foothill forest. Between rainshowers here the mixed-flocks were active, from very cooperative Lafresnaye’s Piculets and a Black-billed Treehunter practically at our feet to colorful tanagers feeding at the cecropia spikes, with Red-headed Barbets tagging along and Lemon-browed Flycatchers perching on the nearby canopy. A final delight was a gorgeous Coppery-headed Jacamar that popped up on a bamboo spring on the forest edge, right in front of us.
From here we moved up into the heart of the subtropical zone at San Ysidro Labrador, ending the day with a close look at “the mystery owl,” a black-and-white owl discovered here that may well represent an undescribed taxon. Dawn the next morning brought a parade of birds from large to small to the lodge lights to glean moths attracted during the night, a great introduction to the birds of this zone. Though at times birds were hard to find here after this, and the forests sometimes seemed very quiet (quite normal for the subtropics!), by the end of our days here we had seen such specialties as displaying Black-and-chestnut Eagles, an Andean Potoo on its day roost, Crested and Golden-headed quetzals in the scope, a brilliant male Andean Cock-of-the-rock that lingered briefly for all to see, White-bellied Antpittas that snuck into full view as worms were tossed to them, new hummingbirds (the Long-tailed Sylph a favorite in this zone), and a pair of Flame-faced Tanagers that practically attacked us. A slow morning on the very wet out-lying Guacamayo Ridge turned magical when the fog parted and a mixed-flock appeared right below us. Suddenly we had Grass-green Tanagers to confuse with Green-and-black Fruiteaters, flycatchers jumping out at us, a pair of stunning Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonias in perfect light, and a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker that lingered for a long time. Such are the vagaries of birding these mysterious forests! Our final afternoon in the area was crowned by finally spotting the Andean Motmots, a bird that we had heard every day but not seen. For such a large bird they can hide very effectively!
As we traveled higher into the mountains, past dramatic waterfalls plunging down the steep forested slopes, a stop at Guango Lodge brought yet more new hummingbirds, topped by the incredible Sword-billed. Here too was a very bold flock of Turquoise Jays and a young Torrent Duck still learning to navigate the rushing waters, an amazing feat for a small bird. The next morning we ventured above tree-line for the first time, with great weather and views of the volcanos and good luck with the specialty birds. Our final day was spent exploring the vast páramo grasslands of the new Antisana Preserve, with two fabulous adult Andean Condors perched on the cliffs (until one flew and a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle dive-bombed it!), Carunculated Caracaras and Black-faced Ibis parading around like chickens, elegant Andean Lapwings, and a close pair of Black-winged Ground-Doves. Two final surprises at our lunch stop were a Giant Hummingbird (“that’s a hummer”?) and a thrush-like Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant hopping around on the lawn.
All too soon it was back to Quito for a final dinner, our time in the beautiful Andes over, but never to be forgotten!