Ecuador: A Hummingbird Extravaganza Feb 07—16, 2014

Posted by Paul Greenfield

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Paul Greenfield

Paul Greenfield grew up near New York City and became interested in birds as a child. He received his B.F.A. from Temple University where he was an art major at the Tyler S...

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Hummingbirds are truly fascinating and wonderful creatures no matter where you find them or how many you get to see, but our 2014 Hummingbird Extravaganza turned out to be a true celebration of these fascinating living gems in perhaps the best and most accessible hummingbird country in the world—Ecuador.

During our 8-day adventure, we followed an easy transect up and over the east and west Andean slopes from the capital city of Quito in the north of this pint-sized and surprisingly biodiverse country. We visited a variety of locations at varying altitudes, all of which have gained fame as hummingbird hot-spots and great birding sites as well. It wasn’t just the fact that we identified 63 hummingbird species in a week that made this such a memorable trip, but we seized this unique opportunity to see most of them so well, so close-up and repeatedly, and often under perfect light conditions; this allowed us to compare so many different species, observe their varied behavior and often dizzying interactions, and witness their glittering and glowing gorgets, crowns, tails, rumps, crissums, and wings…enjoying elaborate crests, tails, and “leggings” while observing their diverse bill lengths that are so perfectly adapted to the symbiotic relationship that they have forged with the flowers they’ve co-evolved with.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Sword-billed Hummingbird— Photo: Jon Dunn

 
   

The first day of our two-stage journey began in the interandean valley just east of Quito as we headed towards the Amazon Basin and our first night’s lodging along the east Andean slope. The fact that we had to pass over the páramo zone around Papallacta Pass because it was socked in with fog and rain didn’t stop us from picking up our first 16 hummingbird species for the trip! Superb looks at Sparkling Violetear, Black-tailed Trainbearer, and White-bellied Woodstar were the early morning’s avian hors d’oeuvres, followed by a light snack of Shining Sunbeams (our first glances) and a Giant Hummingbird snapping up insects near what appeared to be its nesting sight, above Pifo. The banquet was served (actually a hearty box-lunch for us…nectar for the birds…lots of them!) at Guango Lodge. This was already beginning to feel like an extravaganza, complete with characteristic “oohs-&-ahhs” and in-your-face looks at Tourmaline Sunangels, Speckled Hummingbirds, breathtaking Long-tailed Sylphs, Tyrian Metaltails, Collared Incas, the not-to-be-believed Sword-billed Hummingbird, Buff-tailed and Chestnut-breasted coronets, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, and a Mountain Velvetbreast. A noisy band of Turquoise Jays signaled us and it was time to pry ourselves from this delightful frenzy and head to our evening’s destination—Cabañas San Isidro (with Torrent Duck along the way!), where we came upon a cooperative after-dinner “San Isidro Mystery” Owl and a huge Hercules Beetle before calling it a night.

The following day began with pre-breakfast birding around the immediate grounds of this wonderful site. Mostly non-hummingbirds were on the menu—many of them and mostly up close and personal, as a wide variety of species came to feast on moths and other insects that had been attracted to the streetlights during the night. Some of the highlights included Bicolored Hawk; Masked Trogon; Andean (Highland) Motmot; White-capped (Speckle-faced) Parrot; Olive-backed and Montane woodcreepers; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Pale-edged Flycatcher; Inca Jay; Mountain Wren; Black-billed Peppershrike; Spectacled and Slate-throated whitestarts; Saffron-crowned, Black-capped, and Beryl-spangled tanagers; Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch; Subtropical Cacique; and Russet-backed Oropendola. We later spent the rest of the morning “hummingbirding” at San Isidro’s active nectar feeders where we added Green Violetear and Bronzy Inca, along with many species we’d already enjoyed the day before…more great looks, more great photo-ops!

We headed out after lunch towards our final east-slope destination—Wildsumaco Lodge, and spent the afternoon birding the Sumaco entrance road to get us in the mood for this great area. Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a pair of Military Macaws, Black-tailed Tityra (a first record for the area!), our first Paradise Tanager sightings (boyoyoyoing!), our first of dozens of Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Crested Oropendola, and Golden-rumped Euphonia all helped set the mood. We spent the following day-and-a-half in this tremendously productive area, taking leisurely strolls and feeder-watching from the lodge’s ample deck and at its forest-based feeders, mesmerized in the midst of hundreds of hummers…special ones, spectacular ones! We eventually departed after having been truly immersed in a whirl of glitter and frenzy, starring Green Hermit, Wire-crested Thornbill, (buff-booted) Booted Racket-tail, Black-throated and Violet-fronted brilliants, Gould’s Jewelfront, Gorgeted Woodstar, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Napo Sabrewing, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Many-spotted Hummingbird, and Golden-tailed Sapphire, among others. We also enjoyed many non-hummers, just to mention a few: Gilded and Red-headed barbets; Many-banded Araçari; Golden-collared Toucanet; Black-mandibled Toucan; Yellow-tufted and Crimson-crested woodpeckers; Maroon-tailed Parakeet; Chestnut-fronted Macaw; Lined Antshrike; Black-billed Treehunter; Long-tailed Tyrant; Thrush-like Wren; Magpie, Blue-necked, Golden-eared, and Swallow tanagers; Blue Dacnis; Bronze-green Euphonia; and Blue-naped Chlorophonia. Our return to Quito—with brief stops in the high Andean temperate and páramo zones—brought us great looks at a Shining Sunbeam, along with only fair looks at a female Ecuadorian Hillstar and Blue-mantled Thornbill. Stage II of our journey was about to begin.

The following morning we headed to the Mindo Valley, our headquarters for the remainder of the trip, with a half-day stop at Yanacocha Reserve and later Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge for our initiation into the riches of Ecuador’s west Andean slope. By the time we reached Séptimo Paraíso Lodge we had chalked up quite a few new and special birds: Gorgeted Sunangel, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, more Sword-bills (!), Great Sapphirewing, (white-booted) Booted Racket-tail, Purple-throated Woodstar, and we can’t forget our pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, along with a fine selection of other characteristic west-slope Andean species.

Violet-tailed Sylph

Violet-tailed Sylph— Photo: Jon Dunn

During the following days we visited several nearby sites at varying elevations to take full advantage of the depth and breadth of hummingbird species in this region, with many Chocó bioregional endemics among them, including White-necked Jacobin; Bronzy, White-whiskered, Baron’s, and Stripe-throated hermits; Brown Violetear; Purple-crowned Fairy; Black-throated Mango; Green Thornbill; Violet-tailed Sylph (stunning tail!); Brown Inca; Velvet-purple Coronet (Wow!); Purple-bibbed Whitetip; Green-crowned and Empress brilliants; Long-billed Starthroat; Crowned Woodnymph; Andean Emerald; and Blue-chested, Purple-chested, and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds. We also enjoyed Double-toothed and Plumbeous kites; Common Potoo; Golden-headed Quetzal; Chocó Trogon; Pale-mandibled Araçari; Chocó and Chestnut-mandibled toucans; Dot-winged Antwren; Pacific Hornero; Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner; Red-faced Spinetail; Ornate Flycatcher; Masked Water-Tyrant; Masked Tityra; Cinnamon Becard; Slate-throated Gnatcatcher; Red-capped Manakin; Golden-naped, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, Flame-faced, Golden, and Silver-throated tanagers; Black-winged Saltator; Orange-billed Sparrow; and Scarlet-rumped Cacique, etc.

Our final day was spent returning to Quito along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute (aptly named “Hummingbird Drive”) where we made three planned stops (to visit some friends) as a sort of cleanup attempt before the trip’s end, and we came up with a few goodies: Tawny-bellied Hermit, Wedge-billed Hummingbird (actually puncturing the corollas of several flowers to “rob” nectar), and a breathtaking male Western Emerald, along with Crimson–rumped Toucanet and a brief look, for some of us, at a female Cock-of-the-rock to close out the day!

This was a focus on hummingbirds (many of them!), their tiny (and surprisingly not so tiny) size, and their frenetic interactions, unfathomable metabolism, pugnacious personalities, screaming colors, and extravagant plumages. We were granted repeated and often super looks at all but a very few species under varied light conditions, where we could appreciate how these fascinating feathered gems use their stunning plumages and/or hide their beauty at will, just how difficult and frustrating they can be to see “in the wild” away from nectar feeders, and how tough they can be to identify! Great looks and photo-ops of these wonderful creatures were a piece-of-cake, so to speak. We were able to experience their specific habitats and their favorite flowers, along with many of the non-hummingbird species (avian, mammalian, and insect) that share this world with them. We observed them in all types of weather and climates and got a feel for a part of this wonderful hummingbird country, Ecuador. I think we can safely attest to the fact that this was a true Hummingbird Extravaganza.