Tandayapa Pre-trip Galapagos Cruise Jul 05—08, 2016

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Quito, our arrival point into Ecuador, is an attractive city set in the Central Valley between two parallel ranges of the Andes. Pichincha Volcano looms over it to the west, while across a deep valley to the east are the Eastern Andes, their snow-capped peaks reaching for the sky. However, this is a dry region, blocked from the frequent rains on the outer slopes, and the birdlife is limited. This makes it all the more amazing that less than a two-hour drive to the northwest lies one of the richest regions for birds in all of South America. Here, the western slopes of the Andes catch the abundant moisture rising from the steamy Pacific lowlands, creating a wonderland of steep slopes and plunging valleys heavily blanketed in lush forests. Popularly known as “cloud forest,” the sheer exuberance of the vegetation here is amazing, as is the avifauna. Birds are abundant and the variety seems endless. Dazzling hummingbirds and brilliant tanagers, two favorite Neotropical families, dominate the show, but there are many others, among them some very cool endemics found only in this small area. Our pre-trip to the Galapagos Cruise spent three delightful days sampling some of the best of what this remarkable region has to offer.

Empress Brilliant

Empress Brilliant— Photo: David Wolf

 

After a leisurely breakfast our first morning, we worked our way out of the Quito traffic to a pass in the arid mountains, where a “pit stop” at Calicali produced our first birds, beautiful soaring Variable Hawks and a male Black-tailed Trainbearer working the flowers along a sparse hedgerow. Just a few curves below here, as we started our descent down the west slope, we suddenly entered another realm, the hillsides now covered in lush epiphyte-laden forest. Our destination was Pacha Quindi, the home of VENT leader Tony Nunnery and his lovely wife Barbara. Here, overlooking the idyllic Tandayapa Valley, they have set up an amazing garden, the many feeders and flowers literally buzzing with dozens of hummingbirds.  The activity was dizzying, and the next several hours passed very quickly as we repeatedly studied the various species present, interrupted only when our first colorful Golden, Golden-naped, and Blue-winged Mountain tanagers appeared in the yard. After reluctantly saying our goodbyes to Tony and Barbara, we made our way through the forest on the ridge above. Though conditions were good (high clouds, but no fog or mist), the birds were quiet, so we continued to Septimo Paraiso Lodge, checking in with ample time to spend watching their hummingbird feeders. Here, at a slightly lower elevation, we picked up several new ones, so that we ended the day with a remarkable tally of 23 species of these gems! Quite a number of them are endemic to these mid-elevation forests, and several, including the spectacular Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant, were rarely seen before we had feeders to attract them.

Choco Toucan

Choco Toucan— Photo: David Wolf

 

Dawn on our second day revealed clouds hanging low on the ridge above us—and birds busting out of the trees around the lodge. A productive pre-breakfast walk here was highlighted by Crested Guans, toucans slipping through the canopy, well-camouflaged Red-billed Parrots feeding in a palm, Black-winged Saltators up on a snag, cute Ornate Flycatchers, a tiny male Golden-winged Manakin feeding in a fruiting tree, and a host of euphonias and tanagers. By mid-morning we were headed for the nearby Milpe Bird Sanctuary, but just as we arrived the clouds descended and a light rain began. Not to worry! We were under shelter, there were abundant snacks on the table thanks to Juan, and literally swarms of birds were visiting the nectar and banana feeders right in front of us. For the rest of the morning we found ourselves engrossed by the continual parade. Tanagers predominated, their names only hinting at their beauty. Who could ever get enough of Flame-faced, Golden, Blue-necked, Rufous-throated, Lemon-rumped and more?  More surprising at the feeders, but definitely spectacular at such close range, were a Rufous Motmot and several Choco Toucans and Collared Aracaris.

That afternoon we visited perhaps the best show yet, at “Rolando’s.”  Just behind his simple house on the highway, at the edge of a steeply-forested mountainside, this Ecuadorian countryman has set up a feeding station that attracts an amazing variety of interesting birds. His love for the birds, and pride in being part of a broad local movement to protect these unique forests, made this an especially delightful stop. Here we found Crimson-rumped Toucanets almost close enough to touch, plus pairs of Metallic-green and Black-capped tanagers amidst the many commoner species. A gorgeous pair of Red-headed Barbets returned to the bananas several times, but in spite of much watching, the highly-desired Toucan Barbets failed to appear.  We would just have to search for them the next day.

Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager

Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager— Photo: David Wolf

 

On our final morning afield we went for quality rather than quantity. Another stop at Rolando’s was irresistible, and within minutes it paid off.  As the toucanets and scarce Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers waited patiently for fresh bananas, a silent Toucan Barbet appeared right on schedule as Rolando had promised. Yes!  This distinctive and beautiful endemic has a very limited world range, and there is no better place to see it than this area. Then, as we left and started our way up the ridge, a surprise pair of Masked Water-Tyrants bounced into the road right in front of us. It was nice to have a distinctive flycatcher after the many confusing ones! Higher up, strolls through the cloud forest produced several small mixed-flocks, highlighted by a normally elusive Streaked Tuftedcheek that gave us scope views. Suddenly a distant squeal was heard from the valley below. Mountain-toucan! Many consider this bird the most spectacular of the regional endemics, and seeing it was a high priority, so we hustled down the road towards the sound. It took a little playing of their calls, but like magic we soon spotted them working their way through the canopy, one pausing over the road right in front of us and another in a tree beside us. So many colors and such a complex pattern! Then, as we admired the toucans, a stunning male Crested Quetzal appeared in the same grove of trees. For a moment it was hard to know where to look first. All too soon both species had moved on and the forest was quiet again, so we continued to the ridgetop, where we found a large mixed-flock slowly moving along the roadside. It was satisfying to get such close looks at the small birds, but it was a brilliant Crimson-mantled Woodpecker that popped up at eye level that stole the show. A welcome and birdy rest stop at Bella Vista Lodge added Gorgeted Sunangel to our list, the last new hummingbird of the trip, and then it was time to start back to Quito to prepare for our Galapagos adventure. We had certainly gotten a fabulous sample of the birds of this lovely region in our few short days here!