Northern Ecuador, February 2012

Day 1 Our tour started with a half day visit to a dry scrub remnant just north of Quito. Several species of cacti were present as we searched for birds typical of this limited, interandean valley habitat. Although we had only distant views of Giant Hummingbird, our close-ups of Rusty Flowerpiercer and Streak-backed Canastero gave us something to savor. Unlike its many furnariid cousins who like things damp and dark, this canastero does just fine with dry locations.

The next day ushered in 13 days of full time birding. Our morning brought us to 11,000' and the fog-shrouded Yanacocha Preserve. Though visibility was limited we were treated to great views of some of the hummingbird regulars such as Sapphire-vented Puffleg and Ghirewing. Often the largest hummingbirds are to be found at the highest elevations. Two species of Antpittas are becoming accustomed to the worm offerings of the park staff so we were entertained by both Tawny and Rufous. Tawny Antpitta is the only member of its genus that can be easily seen in paramo (tundra) habitat so seeing the normally skulking Rufous was memorable. Our afternoon took us down (and down and down) the old Nono-Mindo Road through some beautiful temperate cloud forest into the Tandayapa Valley. The next stop-at the home of Tony and Barbara Nunnery- was certainly a highlight. Their yard list for hummingbirds alone is around 42 species!! Besides regulars Collared Inca and Gorgeted Sunangel, a White-tailed Hillstar put in a rare west slope appearance.

Day 3 Day 3 found us heading much lower on the west slope to an isolated Mindo Cloudforest Foundation reserve at Rio Silanche. The various clothing layers needed on Yanacocha were gone as we were starting to sweat. On the observation tower we had close views of Blue-headed Parrot, Purple-throated Fruitcrow (watching its throat feathers flair as it called), and Collared Aracaris. Fly by sightings of Tiny Hawk and Bat Falcon were unexpected but welcome. In the forest below the tower, activity was good with appearances by Western Slaty Antshrike, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant (long name for a mite of a bird), and the first of many jaw-dropping Manakins-a Blue-crowned, its vibrant crown standing out neon-like in the understory gloom. Heading back higher toward Mindo, we lunched at Mirador Rio Blanco where the birding didn't stop. A<span Crimson-rumped Toucanet bullied at the fruit feeder, a Green-crowned Woodnymph dazzled at the hummingbird feeder, and Roger, our guide, calmly put a pair of Yellow-collared Chlorophonias in the scope. What color! As we left, a Swallow-tailed Kite circled repeatedly at eye level above the canyon behind the restaurant. What's not to like about birding? Our afternoon outing took us nearby to another MCF preserve-Milpe. The next unforgettable Manakin encounter was about to happen. Just before a deluge set in, we watched several Club-winged Manakin males do their "wing dance". They vibrate their wings many times per second to produce a ringing sound that the lady manakins just can't ignore. Nor could we.

Day 4 Day 4 led us to another (of many) west slope preserves-Mangaloma. Like Rio Silanche, a forest patch surrounded by cleared land. We were quickly on a bonafide ant swarm with several species of "attendants" excitedly calling at the prospect of easy insect lunch courtesy of the marauding army ants. Several Bicolored Antbirds, swooping in on panicked insects, gave us great looks. Further up the trail, we scoped a Choco Toucan and a surprise Spectacled Owl found by our driver Nestor. A brief look at a female Long-wattled Umbrellabird (seen well only by myself) was a portend of things to come. Back at our west slope home, Sachatamia Lodge, we lounged under an outside portal (with beers no less) while Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers and Flame-faced Tanagers (name not an exaggeration) dazzled us at the fruit feeders. A local squirrel climbed the feeder pole and made off with a banana, only to be held up by a trio of Sickle-winged Guans who managed to steal the prize. Day 5 Time to transition from the west slope, but not before some important bird business at Rancho Angel Paz. We viewed the forlorn male Cocks of the Rock (no females in sight), the hip swiveling "Shakira"-a mesmerizing Ochre-breasted Antpitta, and a "worm-lured" Ocellated Tapaculo-so different from its cousins that one wonders why it has the same last name. As we departed the ranch, we paused to admire a day roosting male Lyre-tailed Nightjar-complete with preposterous tail feathers twice as long as its body! Our last west slope stop was along the Rio Guaillabamba and a ravine that is home to about 20 Oilbirds. These prehistoric looking, horror movie sounding feathered creations are not soon forgotten. I think they found their way into the dreams of several trip members! Day 6 We are off to the rarified air of Antisana Parque Nacional. Being cold while on the equator is a bit confusing but there we were at almost 13,000' in the shadow of snow-capped Volcan Antisan. Some high altitude regulars such as Black-faced Ibis, Andean Gull, and Silvery Grebe put in appearances but we were running out of time to find our main prize. Suddenly our guide Marcelo yelled-"Condors!" We bolted out of the van and watched a pair of these Pleistocene holdouts on a cliff not too distant. Our patience was soon rewarded when the pair took flight and banked right over us. Counting the primaries of an Andean Condor right overhead is a humbling experience. Later the same day we paused at Guango Lodge during our east slope descent to give everyone great looks at another oversized member of a different family-the Sword-billed Hummingbird. With a bill seemingly larger than its body, this giant of the hummingbird world must continue to hover while at feeders since its bill is much too long to allow the bird to perch! Days 7-10 Back at Cabanas San Isidro in the subtropical zone on the east slope always feels like home. Carmen Bustamante and Mitch Lysinger (co-owners) certainly set the bar high for the other ecolodges in Ecuador.With prime habitat protected around the lodge, the birding isn't too shabby either. Inca (now Green) Jay, Black-billed Peppershrike, and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker are all part of the regular CSI welcoming committee. Other memorable encounters there included Black-billed Mountain Toucan, White-capped Tanager, and a recently found (by our guide Marcelo) Peruvian Antpitta. Our stay was topped with a group of Andean Potoos coming out near the lodge at dusk. Leaving CSI at just over 6,000', we crest the Guacamayos Ridge and walk the summit trail-for once not fogged in! A mixed species flock (aka "bandada mixta") brings us close views of Mountain and Sharpe's Wren, Black-capped Hemispingus, Dusky Piha (reminiscent of our Gray Jay) and many scintillating Beryl-spangled Tanagers. Repeated efforts by our relentless Marcelo give several in the group point blank views of Slate-crowned Antpitta. Gotta love Marcelo's persistence. Continuing our east slope descent, we hit the upper tropics along the Loretto Road. Enroute to Wild Sumaco Lodge we pause to view an Orange-breasted Falcon on an historic perch. Much closer (and vivid) was a stoic Fasciated Tiger Heron poised in one of the many thundering rivers coming off the steep Andes. Our day at Wild Sumaco Lodge is too short but we take full advantage of our stay. Highlights included Golden-collared Toucanet, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, White-crowned and Blue-rumped Manakins and a host of unique hummers such as Wire-crested Thorntail</span>, Golden-tailed Sapphire, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Napo Sabrewing, Black-throated Brilliant, and Gould's Jewelfront (and not one had "hummingbird" in its name!). Day 11 Descending the last stretch of the eastern foothills, we enter "El Oriente" as the eastern lowlands of Ecuador are called. Although half of the country lies in the westernmost part of the Amazon basin, it represents barely 2% of that massive drainage! We embark by boat from the oil boom town of Coca and head east on the Rio Napo-a river as wide as the Mississippi but only one of 18 such tributaries to the Amazon River. After 1.5 hours at full speed we reach the Sacha Lodge dock and start our trek down the boardwalk to the lodge. We pause for looks at Purplish Jacama and, Violaceous Jay before reaching the lagoon prior to our transfer to the lodge itself. Canoe travel is very relaxing, especially in paradise. Both Short-tailed Swift and Fork-tailed Palm Swift escort us across the lake. After stashing our gear in the cabanas, we are off to Orquidea Creek, a channel weaving through flooded "varzea" forest. The quiet is deafening, the vegetation rampant, and the water stiller than ice. What a place. Back to the birds-an Orange-crested Manakin pops up and refuses to fly as we glide by. A vibrant Green and Rufous Kingfisher poses briefly before being driven off by an aggressive (and much larger) Ringed Kingfisher. As dusk settles in our guide Pablo motions silently to a small shrub near the channel. At first, we see nothing but, upon further review, we see a frozen Rufescent Tiger Heron patiently awaiting its next meal. Day 12 We are back to the Rio Napo this morning to catch the action at a parrot lick on the south side of the river. As we near the other shore, Pablo directs our boatman Rodrigo to beach us on a sandbar. He is out in a flash and has the scope set up. We are treated to a distant but clear look at an Amazonian Umbrellabird male in a massive kapok tree. That wattle of feathers hanging from its neck seems a most puzzling evolutionary quirk. Heading further downriver, we hear the congregation of parrots well before we see them. Rows and rows of Mealy and Yellow-crowned Amazons (now "Parrots") dwarf the few Dusky-headed Parakeets and Blue-headed Parrots in attendance. At times, one of the Mealy Amazons flies off with a huge chunk of clay in its bill as if trying to hide a prized food item from its competitors. Soon we are motoring further to an emergent river island. River islands in the Rio Napo are like successional forests following fire or clearing. Grasses colonize (in this case the sandbars) first, then low shrubs, then a mix of trees including cecropias. The island we visit is midway through this progression. Several Pied Plovers greet us with their blazing red legs and striking black and white plumage. On the island itself, we glimpse White-bellied Spinetail and River Tyrant. More obvious are the gaudy Oriole Blackbirds and Orange-headed Tanagers. A Great Black Hawk flyover is an added bonus before the building mid morning heat drives us back to the boat. As we head back to the lodge, Pablo has several stakeouts in store for us, including Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Tropical Screech Owl and one of the trip highlights-Great Potoo. Day 13 Alas, the last full day of birding in Ecuador. At least we have a fine venue to operate in. Buoyed by our previous night's viewing of roosting Marbled Wood Quail, White-necked Thrush, Short-billed Leaftosser, and Long-billed Woodcreeper (the latter two in adjacent buttress roots of the same kapok), we hit the trail early heading for the famous metal towers of Sacha. Enroute, we encounter Golden-crowned and Wire-tailed Manakins in the same field of view! Arriving up on the towers (huffing and puffing) we settle in as Pablo diligently works the scope. In quick succession we view <span style="color: #800000;">Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Ivory-billed Aracari,Slate-colored and White Hawk and Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kite. Close enough for binocular viewing, we enjoy Moustached Antwren, Green and Gold, Turquoise and Paradise Tanagers, and, for many, the star of this morning's show-a Spangled Cotinga. That such colors exist in nature is a marvel to say the least. Our late morning hike back to the lodge is eventful despite declining activity levels. A stakeout of a day roosting pair of Crested Owls is humbling to witness. Pablo then works for 20 minutes, like a master fisherman, reeling in a Rusty-belted Tapaculo. Finally the bird peeks out of the trailside understory several times, giving all exceptional views. Following an afternoon rest, we take to the canoe one last time. A Red-capped Cardinal tees up for scope views-an eye popping start to the voyage. As we paddle across the lagoon, a boisterous Black-capped Donacobius gives us a royal send off. Along Orquidea Creek a din of guttural squawking tells us a family group of Hoatzins is near. These reptilian looking birds probably partied with the Oilbirds back in the day. At the end of the channel, we scale the wooden tower built around a 400-500 year old kapok. At the crown platform, we enjoy the sunset and a burst of bird activity that includes great looks at Masked Tanager, Yellow-browed Tody Flycatcher, Many-banded Aracari, and Piratic Flycatcher. Our last image from the trip is a pair of Gilded Barbets (that we have heard, but not seen, for days) going in and out of their nest hole. The final rays of the sun lit up their orange throats beautifully.

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