Northern Ecuador February 11-23, 2016
Day 1: WingsWest Birding’s 3rd tour to northern Ecuador began with an ascent into Antisana Parque Nacional. The expansiveness of the above treeline paramo habitat is impressive. The harshness of this 13,000′ domain is not an issue for the birds that claim it as home. Carunculated Caracaras stroll the grasslands, Black-faced Ibis feed in the wetter, low spots, Andean Lapwings flash their Willet-like black and white wings, and Black-winged Ground Doves patrol the roadsides like their lower elevation cousins. But the top reward for venturing to these heights is viewing the icon of the Andes, the Andean Condor. We were blessed with sightings of 7 individuals including an adult stretching its wings while perched on a cliff face. A recently opened roadside lunch spot allowed us to view several condors from inside the warm café. An added bonus was a viewing of a Spectacled Bear ripping apart bromeliads on a distant ridge. After this memorable start to the trip, we drove over Papallacta Pass to Guango Lodge, located at over 9,000′ on the east slope of the Andes. The hummingbird show at Guango ranges from the bumble bee like White-bellied Woodstar to the massive Sword-billed Hummingbird, with a preposterous bill longer than its body.
Day 2: We retraced our steps to the road above Termas Papallacta and headed to the entrance of Coca-Cayambe PN. A mixed flock quickly appeared out of the fog, highlighted by great looks at Masked Mountain Tanagers. Also in attendance was White-chinned Thistletail and a group of Black-backed Bush Tanagers. Further up the road (must be done on foot, btw) we had close looks at several Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers that certainly brightened up a gray, dismal morning. The presence of hummingbirds in this high, cold setting seems counter intuitive, but, without bats and insects to do the pollinating, the flowering plants depend on them. We encountered Viridian Metaltail and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill which even gave us a glimpse of its dazzling throat. Following lunch, we descended into the subtropics for our stay at Cabanas San Isidro.
Day 3: Having dropped 2,500 ‘ from the day before, we found ourselves in a very different world. Our first oropendolas (Russet-backed) provided background “music” with their odd array of bubbly and metallic sounds. We observed our first antpitta “show” with a White-bellied hopping into view in response to one of the lodge workers’ repeated whistles. The rest of our day was filled with one memorable sighting after another. Saffron-crowned Tanagers from a rooftop deck, Andean Solitaire and Swainson’s Thrush, cousins from different continents, side by side on a trail, Green-and-black Fruiteater stoically still under the canopy, Rufous-crowned Tody flycatcher, an exuberant sprite in the bamboo, and the raucous but elegant Green Jays ever present around the lodge. All this topped off by the legendary food from the Cabanas San Isidro kitchen.
Day 4: Before continuing our descent into the eastern lowlands, we went up over Guacamayos Ridge. Usually this spot is lost in fog but we actually had an hour of birding with visibility. Beryl-spangled Tanager, Yellow-bellied Chat Tyrant, Long-tailed Antbird, and Plushcap all showed for us. Back at the parking lot, our guide Marcelo persisted in calling in a Bluish Flowerpiercer, essentially looking like its far more common cousin the Masked, but without the mask. Pressing on we began the long switchback down to the Loretto Road. Stopping roadside for lunch, we observed our best mixed flock of the trip so far. Great cross section of birds including Golden-eared Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet, Orange-eared Tanager, White-throated Hillstar, and Coppery-chested Jacamar, the latter a specialty of the foot of the eastern Andes. Heading east toward Wild Sumaco Lodge, we took a side road toward Napo-Galeras PN. Although in the humid mid-afternoon heat, we crossed another mixed flock that kept us busy. Some flock members were tougher to see than the last flock. These included Rufous-tailed Foliage-gleaner, Russet Antshrike, Fulvous Shrike Tanager, and Slaty-capped Shrike Vireo. Others were easier to see such as Yellow-bellied Tanager and Bat Falcon. Early evening found us on the deck at Wild Sumaco watching the parade of Chestnut-fronted Macaws heading to roost.
Day 5: With only one day at Wild Sumaco, we had a lot of birds to see. Wild Sumaco has a unique array of hummingbirds including Golden-tailed Sapphire, Black-throated and Violet-fronted Brilliants, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and the breathtaking Wire-crested Thorntail. Out on the road we savored our first Paradise Tanager, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Long-tailed Tyrant. Wintering boreal migrants always fire my imagination about the length of their journeys. We found several including Scarlet Tanager, Cerulean and Canada Warblers. Providing us an unexpected surprise, Marcelo called into view a Blackish Rail, always a treat to see any member of that clan. After a mid day rain delay, timed nicely around our lunch, we headed down a long, slippery trail to a known Band-bellied Owl roost. What a treat to have these other worldly beings staring down at us. We then retraced our steps only to descend another slope to the antpitta feeding station. Quickly out popped a Plain-backed, putting on a great show as it gorged on the worm bait. As a bonus, several antbirds became active behind the blind affording us looks at White-backed Fire-Eye and, for some, Scale-backed Antbird at the upper edge of its range. Our night birding brought no sightings but we were able to hear the deep and gruff chanting of the Band-bellied Owls.
Day 6: Our Amazon adventure began in earnest this day. Transferring at Coca to the Sani Lodge high speed boat, we said goodbye to Marcelo and our driver Edwin and met our new guide, Carlos. Sani is a bit further down the Rio Napo than most of the other ecolodges so we had 2.5 hours of weaving through the numerous sandbars of a surprisingly low river. Hard to imagine that the Rio Napo, as wide as the Mississippi, is one of 18 such major tributaries of the Amazon. Arriving at Sani in the late afternoon, we were soon hiking into the jungle. Sani has several feeding stations for manakins and our first species, the Wire-tailed, came in after about 15 minutes. Certainly a high point to view this scarce stunner with its vivid yellow/red/black color combo and bristly tail. On our return we scoped our first Scarlet Macaws and had a fly over of their larger cousin, the Blue and Yellow. After dark at the lodge, a Spectacled Owl kept vocalizing from a tree in the center of the compound but I could not locate the bird even while standing at the base of the tree!
Day 7: We were in the canoe early heading for the lodge observation tower. Drifting placidly we viewed old friends such as the prehistoric Hoatzin, the boisterous Black-capped Donacobious, and the sharp-billed Snail Kite. Other noteworthy sightings from the boat included Capped Heron, Azure Gallinule, and the sublime Agami Heron. Once on land, we had a short walk to the tower which is anchored to a mammoth Kapok tree. After 200 steps (yes, I did count them) we were perched in this ancient tree gazing down on the forest canopy. We quickly found Crane Hawk, Black-headed Parrots, Opal-crowned Tanager, and Black-tailed Tityra. Then the birding gods brought the rain. After more than two hours meditating in a downpour, Carlos made the call to head back to the lodge. Back in the canoe, the rain let up and we found a number of new species including Striated Heron, Short-crested Flycatcher, and a great look at Laughing Falcon. By the time we returned to the lodge, the sun was breaking. After lunch, we birded from the deck and were entertained by White-eared and White-chinned Jacamars, Silver-beaked and Masked Crimson Tanagers, and even an Orange-crested Manakin viewable from the bar! A nearby Tropical Screech Owl on a day roost was an added bonus. We finished the day with lagoon birding around the lodge with notable additions such as Spangled Cotinga, Red-throated Caracara, and Bare-necked Fruitcrow.
Day 8: Off early to the big river for a clay lick visit. Paddling through flooded forest, Carlos used his ultra keen eyes and ears to add some choice new species such as American Pygmy Kingfisher, Dot-backed Antbird, and the very local Cocha Antshrike. Once back on the Rio Napo, it was high speed to the claylick. Viewing from our boat, we watched the spectacle of parrots and parakeets munching clay that would later help them overcome the toxicity of fruit pits that they have evolved to digest. Mealy, Orange-winged, and Yellow-crowned were the large amazon genus parrots present and they were joined by the much smaller Blue-headed. We then headed for a nearby river island to look for species that specialize in that habitat. Oriole Blackbird, Olive-spotted Hummingbird, and Orange-headed Tanager were seen easily but others, such as Fuscous Flycatcher and Spotted Tody Flycatcher proved to be too elusive. On a nearby sandbar we did have great looks at Pied Lapwing and Collared Plover. After a tour of Carlos’ home village, complete with a close up look at a roosting Crested Owl (its glare not soon forgotten), we returned to the lodge to make another attempt at tower viewing. Enroute, we had great looks at Golden-headed and Striped Manakins and a day roosting Common Potoo. When we ascended the tower, a Great Potoo was serenely sleeping a few feet from our spot-perfectly camouflaged. Both Pied Puffbird and Turquoise Tanager were at the fruit feeder. After a somewhat slow half hour, Carlos called attention to a distant raptor-a very distant raptor. At 60X my scope was stretched to its limit. After some debate and relying on Carlos’ years of experience in the jungle, we settled on Crested Eagle as the proper id. I sure hope I get a chance to view such a majestic creature at a distance closer than a kilometer and a half!
Day 9: Alas, our departure from the Amazon was nigh. I was down at the boat dock early and called in a Sunbittern-a bizarre wader with colorful eye spots on the wings designed to frighten potential predators. Several in our group were able to get a look once we were all gathered. A nearby roosting Rufescent Tiger Heron was a nice send off. Soon we were back on the Rio Napo zipping upstream for our rendezvous with the jet back to Quito. The flight from the lowlands back over the Andes is a short affair, but one made longer on this day due to high winds as we approached the airport. Our pilot smartly aborted the first landing attempt and accelerated back up to a circling altitude. Second approach was bumpy but not as rough as our first try. Sure felt good to be back on Terra Firme. Our afternoon was spent at Mitch and Carmen’s house in nearby Cumbaya (yes, there is really a town with that name!). Getting to visit with the folks who host our tours was an unexpected treat. We then made the long drive to the west side of Quito for our nights stay at Hotel Sebastian.
Day 10: The last leg of our trip, the west slope of the Andes, started with a visit to Yanacocha, one of the Jocotoco Foundation’s key preservation efforts. On the northwest slope of Volcan Pichincha this reserve protects critical habitat for a number of high elevation species. We quickly encountered Andean Guan, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker-one of the showiest of its clan, and both Black-chested and Hooded Mountain Tanagers. Further on, an Andean Pygmy Owl kept calling to our playback but never came into view. The hummingbird show was impressive as usual with Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Shining Sunbeam, and Great Sapphirewing all in attendance, the latter a “behemoth” with wingbeats slow enough to see. Returning to the parking lot, we were summoned to a nearby patch of polylepsis trees by our driver Edwin. Noticing that Marcelo, our guide, was excited we quickened our pace. Sure enough, Edwin had discovered a scarce Giant Conebill, an odd member of its family that behaves like a woodpecker. Although most of our descent that afternoon to the Mindo area was in heavy rain, we did have two noteworthy sightings. First, a pair of Plate-billed Mountain Toucans were feeding on Cecropia fruit but, as the rain intensified, they simply hunkered down and froze in place affording us superb views. Then, on the final leg descending into Mindo, Marcelo began searching for the rare Tanager Finch on a section of road where he observed it a few weeks prior. Some of us joined him in the quest, walking roadside in the rain. After a diligent but unfruitful search, it seemed to be the time to move on. Instead, Marcelo, with the tenacity of a mongoose, lead us back to where we started and peered into the dense undergrowth. Sure enough, a pair of Tanager Finches, looking like short-tailed brushfinches with oversized heads, came into view and even fluttered across the road giving us further clear views. Great piece of birding by Marcelo.
Day 11: Although Mindo was socked in with rain. we stuck with our plan to visit the Rio Silanche area, several thousand feet lower. The plan paid off as we dropped down and out of the fog/rain zone. What a morning of birding. At the Rio Silanche tower we view a mixed flock at eye level with notable attendees including Gray-and-gold Tanager, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Choco Toucan. Back on the forest floor, Marcelo enticed a Black-headed Antthrush to skitter across the trail and then found a White-whiskered Puffbird for some of our group. Out on the main road, Marcelo kept finding flock after flock. One stop yielded great looks at a pair of Barred Puffbirds, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and Rufous Motmot. Another stop brought us Emerald and Guira Tanagers, White-bearded Manakin, and a close look at the hard to see Dusky-faced Tanager. After lunch we visited Mangaloma Reserve. Despite the rain we had great looks at a pair of Zeledon’s Antbirds. That night back at Sachatamia Lodge, the local Black-and-White Owl cooperated well in the parking lot-impressive bird.
Day 12: Our traditional visit to the ranch of Angel Paz and his clan looked dubious due to rain. We were able to view the Cock-of-the-Rock sunrise display but then the rains came in earnest. After an hour of waiting, and just before we were going to return to Sachatamia, the rains let up and the antpitta show began. A new performer, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, not only came out for worms, but even tight-roped across a branch right in front of the human crowd gathered. Higher up, the iconic Giant Antpitta came out on cue. In relatively quick succession, we viewed Shakira, the twisting (and much smaller) Ochre-breasted Antpitta and a Moustached Antpitta. Then we descended to the creek where Angel has the Yellow-breasted Antpitta trained to come to the edge of the river. We used to have to hike way down a slippery path to the bottom of a ravine to view this bird. Lastly, we drove to a high ridge on the property and were rewarded with close-up views of Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. The six-pack of antpittas in one morning!! And, to top things off, we got a close-up of one of Ecuador’s giant earthworms. Yikes! Back at Sachatamia, we continued to view the west slope onslaught of hummers including Velvet Purple Coronet, Empress Brilliant, and Purple-bibbed Whitetip. The fruit feeders entertained as well with visits from Golden-naped Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, and a pair of Sickle-winged Guans. After lunch we headed across the road to a new feeding station. Emerald Toucanet dominated for a bit but then Black-chinned Mountain Tanager appeared. Finally, Marcelo called in a Toucan Barbet, truly an iconic bird of the west slope. We then descended to Milpe Reserve, only to be rained out for 1.5 hours. Oh well, let’s just go back to Sachatamia and drink in the hummingbirds. As dinner approached, I checked out a trail on the grounds of the lodge and by some miracle was able to call in a female Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Unfortunately, we were unable to refind her the next morning.
Day 13: Our last full day in Ecuador and we were off to an area new to me, the Reserva Amagusa near the Mashpi Road. This is the southern terminus of the Choco cloud forest region that spans southwest Colombia and northwest Ecuador. As luck would have it, we had a partly sunny morning on our arrival. One of our first birds encountered, and high on our hoped for list, was Moss-backed Tanager. We watched it at very close range eating seeds on a pendulous red fruit. Soon our attention was on an Indigo Flowerpiercer, another scarce specialty of the area. Finally, we had a brief look at Buffy Tuftedcheek. After an unsuccessful try to view a vocalizing Brown-billed Scythebill, we headed to the Reserva Amagusas feeders. Glistening Green Tanager was the star of the show but we also had great looks at Green Thorntail and White-whiskered Hermit. Marcelo made a great effort for Black Solitaire, but to no avail. We did have great views of Orange-breasted Fruiteater. We continued down a side road through good habitat and found a group of Rufous-throated Tanagers but vocalizing Club-winged Manakin and Ochre-breasted Tanagers managed to stay out of view. With time running short, we hit the road for the 3.5 hour drive back to our hotel near the airport. Mil gracias Ecuador y hasta pronto!