Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 15—23, 2014
Posted by Paul Greenfield
The proof is in the pudding! Our 7-day Northwestern Andean Slopes tour does it again—combining great birding, great avian diversity, super birds, and some of the finest viewing conditions on Earth, as well as a great group of birders to share it all! It is truly amazing just how many species and experiences we “chalked-up” in the really compact area we covered, from the high-temperate forests to the lowlands, just west of Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. This is a land of hummingbirds, quetzals and trogons, toucans, barbets, woodpeckers, parrots, antpittas, manakins, and tanagers; well, I am obviously short-changing woodcreepers and furnariids, flycatchers, raptors, cotingas, wrens, thrushes, warblers, and a bunch of other noteworthy families. We took over only one lodge for the entire week, as a center of operations, which offers many advantages, and we traveled throughout the area visiting the many interesting and birdy sites this region has to offer; we even decided one morning to explore (a-la-expedition) a new nearby area. Every site we visited brought us new species and surprises!
Our birding began at the high-Andean Yanacocha Reserve, not too far from Quito, where we spent the morning amid beguiling vistas, elfin moss-forest, giant Gunnera leaves, and hummingbirds. We walked the wide, fairly level trail watching for any sign of bird activity until we reached a prominent set of nectar feeders and our first hummingbird frenzy—then we climbed a bit to a final set of feeders before returning for a picnic lunch after having enjoyed some fine highland birds: Andean Guan; Tyrian Metaltail; Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs; Buff-winged Starfrontlet; the “crazy-looking” Sword-billed Hummingbird; the huge Great Sapphirewing; Blackish Tapaculo; Tufted Tit-Tyrant; Rufous Wren; Spectacled Whitestart; Hooded, Black-chested, and Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers; Glossy and Masked flowerpiercers; and Rufous-naped Brush-Finch, among them. We then continued our journey sharply downslope and along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute, through ever-changing montane habitats and birds, to our second scheduled (coffee-break) stop—Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge—and more fabulous nectar feeders, these in the lower temperate zone. We quickly began to add species to the day’s list with a “pile” of new hummers: Green Violetear, Gorgeted Sunangel, Speckled Hummingbird, Violet-tailed Sylph (wow!), Brown and Collared incas (more wows!), Buff-tailed Coronet, Booted Racket-tail (!!!), Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, and Andean Emerald…it was tough to leave, but the hour was getting late and there might be more surprises yet to come. Yes, at a brief roadside stop, an iconic male Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan called in cooperatively, after which it was time to make a concerted push to our final destination—Séptimo Paraíso—and the end of our first rather productive day.
The following weeklong itinerary was filled with a combination of relatively short trips to key nearby sites, starting with a first morning of leisurely but invigorating birding right near our lodge—setting the tone, I would say—with a pretty memorable pre-breakfast bout at the “Y’ de Mindo (the Mindo turn-off), complete with close looks at many cool species amid passing buses, cars, and people everywhere—a strange scene with great birds, including our first nice looks at Yellow-collared Chlorophonia. The days seemed to fly by, as we made several half-day trips to Milpe Bird Sanctuary, including a stellar morning at Milpe Gardens. We visited the spectacular nectar feeders at Sachatamia and enjoyed a magical experience with Angel Paz, as well as the super tower at Río Silanche (complete with a dead car battery!) and ice-pops at Suamox. We explored an “uncharted” road on a whim, and we birded the grounds at Séptimo Paraíso and the rich roadside habitat along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute. Each of these sites and areas brought us exciting experiences, new birds, and many special moments to remember fondly.
During our first visit to Milpe Bird Sanctuary we walked down to look for Club-winged Manakin, only to come face-to-face with a female Long-wattled Umbrellabird! Trees were coming into fruit everywhere, which seemed to be bringing in toucans and araçaris wherever we went, and we completed our toucan wish-list by the fourth day (also at Milpe). Our morning with Angel Paz and his Andean Cocks-of-the-rock, and exceptional looks at Dark-backed Wood-Quail; Yellow-breasted, Giant, Chestnut-crowned, and Ochre-breasted antpittas; Rufous-breasted Antthrush; Scaled Fruiteater; Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl; and “instant” Wedge-billed Hummingbird; topped off with a fine “second” breakfast, won´t be forgotten I’m sure. Our encounters with Wattled Guan along the Mindo entrance road and at Milpe Gardens were unexpected surprises. Birding from the tower at Río Silanche was memorable, to say the least, with close canopy-level looks at species like Orange-fronted Barbet, Pale-mandibled Araçari, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-and-white Becard, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, Blue-whiskered, and Guira tanagers, along with Yellow-tufted Dacnis; and best of all, Jane’s rally-call to the tower’s lower deck to confront a spectacular avian invasion with point-blank views of basically “everything” that came through!
Two species that eluded us to a certain point of frustration eventually decided to give in and show themselves in a big way. Club-winged Manakin was heard distantly a few times, but remained absent at their normal haunts, and with only two days left and limited areas to look, we decided to explore a side-road that was new to our itinerary. At one point we came across a mixed foraging flock and slipped into the forest to get better looks. Our trusty Juan directed my attention to a distant sound, and after some brief playback, not only did a male Club-wing fly in and display for us, but this curious little guy came down to branches right over our heads to check us out! On our last morning, as we worked our way slowly along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute, we came across another mixed foraging flock, and as I stepped onto a narrow forest trail, there it perched, a beautiful Toucan Barbet, just a few feet away; I summoned the group, and one-by-one we all got fantastic looks at this gaudy species as it just hung out there, unabashed; we later found two more pairs to enjoy. Then, still later that morning, after playback on-a-whim, a beautiful Tanager Finch (rare, local, and incredibly furtive!) came rummaging about, literally at our feet…what a prize!
Hummingbirds comprise a whole separate chapter in Ecuadorian birding, and we employed a good deal of time just enjoying, studying, and getting to know the 34 species we found, adding many to our fabulous hummingbirding at Yanacocha and San Isidro. The knee-jerk oohs and aahs seemed to say it all as we wrestled to identify dozens at a time, but what fun, and what a feast for our eyes! You can’t go wrong with White-necked Jacobin; Bronzy, White-whiskered, and Tawny-bellied hermits; Green Thorntail; Velvet-purple Coronet; White-tailed Woodstar; Purple-bibbed Whitetip; Green-crowned and Empress brilliants; Little and Purple-throated woodstars; Western Emerald; Crowned Woodnymph; and Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds. Oh, and how can I forget Golden-headed Quetzal and our four species of trogons (Chocó, White-tailed, Gartered, and Collared to be specific), or the fabulous array of tanagers that blessed us with their presence every day…thank you northwest Ecuador!