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Ecuador 2010: the west slope of the Andes

November 6, 2010

I first birded the west slope of the Ecuadorian Andes in 1990 on a one-day adventure out of Quito into the subtropical wildness of the Nono-Mindo road.  The dirt road wound down from northern slopes Volcan Pichincha, past the cleared pastures of Nono and into the virgin forests of the Alambi Valley.  From the cool temperate forests we descended into the warm subtropical lushness, past the village of Nanegalito and finally ending up at the village of Mindo and the new Mindo Cloudforest Reserve.  Travel on the road was so slow-going, and the birding so good, that by the time we reached Mindo it was time to turn around and climb back to Quito.  I vowed to return one day for a longer stay and this was my chance.

Twenty years later, many things have changed on the west slope of the Andes.  A new highway provides quick access down to the Pacific lowlands, a smooth asphalt surface from Mitad del Mundo to Nanegalito and beyond.  But the road from Nono to the Tandayapa valley just before Nanegalito has been retained as a narrow, gravel-surfaced ecotour route dubbed Paseo del Quinde—perfect for birding.  We took the new highway almost to Nanegalito and turned up the Tandayapa road.  We checked into our home for the next 6 days—Alambi Cloudforest Lodge—a home-style lodge right on the Rio Alambi.

Jairo Sánchez, manager of Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge

Alambi Lodge is managed by Jairo Sánchez, a wonderful host and expert bird guide, fluent in English and knowledgeable about the bird fauna anywhere in Ecuador.  Alambi is a small lodge, and we were the only guests staying there at the time, so the experience was more or less like moving in with an Ecuadorean family for a week.  Most meals were prepared by Jairo’s mother Maria.

And did I mention the hummingbirds?  Ecuador is famous for its hummingbirds, but I’ve never visited a lodge with a greater volume or diversity of hummingbirds at its feeders than Alambi.  At almost any time of day, a scan of the dozen feeders would net 40 or 50 birds of a dozen species, and the total yard list is about 30 species.  The dominant species here is the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, glittering green all over with a bright reddish-brown tail.  It’s the common hummer from the eastern lowlands of Central America down the western foothills of the northern Andes.  Its close relative, the Andean Emerald, was also common at the feeders.  Sparkling Violetears battled with their smaller cousins, the Green Violetears, while Brown Violetears hawked midges from perches above the feeders.  Green-crowned Brilliants sparred with Fawn-breasted Brilliants.  Spectacular White-necked Jacobins were always present, as well as the tiny (by Ecuadorian standards) Purple-throated Woodstars and always-eye-popping Booted Rackettails.  A little patience and concentration was needed to spot the small Western Emerald that darted in occasionally to feed while the bigger species bickered among themselves.  An elegant White-whiskered Hermit would regularly visit the shaded feeders nearest the tall shrubs, but the Tawny-bellied Hermits fed only from the huge heliconia flowers in the garden.  As you can imagine, it was easy to sit at the patio tables and watch the show for hours on end.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

And there were other birds of course.  A trail along the river provided close views of White-capped Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulets.  A pair of noisy Pale-legged (Pacific) Horneros were nesting in the aguacatillo tree in the garden and Jairo put out bananas on a bench every day for the tanagers and saltators.  As tempting as it was, however, we had no intention of lazing about Alambi all day for the next six days.  The lodge is nicely located to act as a base for exploring the many great birding sites of the west slope—Mindo, Bellavista, Paz de Aves, Milpe, Rio Silanche and more.

Our first excursion was up the Tandayapa Valley to Bellavista Lodge, a site I’d heard a great deal about over the years but had never visited (it didn’t exist 20 years ago when I last visited, but then, the area was only being discovered as a birding destination then).  After breakfast we pointed our little car up the hill and drove 12 kilometres straight up to Bellavista.  The change in elevation—2200 metres at Bellavista versus 1500 metres at Alambi—is enough to guarantee an almost completely new list of birds.  Like many ecolodges in Ecuador, Bellavista offers a good trail network that is accessible to the public for a nominal $5 charge.  That charge includes a good cup of coffee and an opportunity to take in their hummingbird feeders.  And what a different array of hummers—the dominant species here is the Buff-tailed Coronet, with regular cameo appearances from handsome Collared Incas, Gorgeted Sunangels, Speckled Hummingbirds, and that most spectacular of west-slope hummingbirds, the Violet-tailed Sylph.

Hummingbirds at Bellavista:  Buff-tailed Coronets (left and back); Violet-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca

We decided to walk the road along the ridge top that goes past the Bellavista Research Station and were not disappointed.  A group of Toucan Barbets honked through the trees, giving us great looks at their colourful plumage.  Then a pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans worked through some fruiting trees. I spent some time working out the songs of tapaculos, a notoriously skulking family of birds that are difficult to see (and most of them difficult to separate based on appearances).  Most of those I heard gave the long rising trills characteristic of Spillmann’s Tapaculo, but one that sang from a bamboo thicket sounded like a Nariño Tapaculo.  One day I vow to actually see one of these little wren-like birds!  We came down one of the forest trails and found a roosting Common Potoo thanks to an obliging Bellavista guide.  A bonus was a calling Crested Quetzal that gave us stunning views of its glistening blue-green and red plumage—this species is rarer than the common Golden-headed Quetzal in this part of the Andes.  In the afternoon we went to Tandayapa Bird Lodge below Bellavista, but for some reason they charge $15 per person for trail access, and since there was only a couple of hours left in the day we thought we’d save the $30 and just walk the road—and had some great birding there.

The next morning we decided to take in one of the legendary bird shows of the west slope—Angel Paz and his antpittas.  Angel is a farmer and former logger from the Nanegalito area.  He built a trail on his forested property to allow birders to see an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, and while doing so he literally befriended a female Giant Antpitta he named Maria.  His epiphany (according to legend) came when he saw Maria eating worms dug up while he was building the trail.  His property has become a must-visit place when staying in the Mindo-Tandayapa area, and the visit is always entertaining.  You meet Angel at 5:30 a.m., the sky still dark, potoos and pygmy-owls calling from the forest.  Just as it is light enough to walk without a headlamp, you follow him through the mora plantations and into the forest.  After about a half-kilometre walk, you begin to hear the squawks and squeals of displaying cocks-of-the-rock and you settle into the lek viewing blind.  A half-dozen scarlet males call in the narrow valley below, attended by a few maroon females.  Angel suddenly starts calling softly “Manuela, Manuela”, and a Giant Antpitta hops out of the forest on to the trail. A few tossed worms later, Manuela is peering at us only three metres away.  A short walk up the trail, Angel points out another anpitta on the trail—this is Maria, his first love, and she is soon enjoying a hefty pile of worms for breakfast.  A hundred metres beyond, Angel’s brother Rodriguo has called out Jose, a Moustached Antpitta, then a pair of Dark-backed Wood-Quail come out to dine on small banana chunks.  And so it goes at Paz de Aves.

Manuela the Giant Antpitta

After Angel failed to call up his usually most cooperative pal, Willy the Yellow-breasted Antpitta (the wait for Willito along the clear mountain stream was a nice break, though we were all getting hungry watching all the birds getting fed while our stomachs growled) we climbed up the hill to the elaborate feeding station for toucanets and other fruit-eaters.  Here Angel placed bunches of grapes and bananas on pulley wires and hauled them up into the mid-canopy.  We waited on narrow benches while Angel made tooting whistles to call in the barbets and toucanets.  A single Crimson-collared Toucanet flew in and tossed back a couple of grapes, then three Sickle-winged Guans cautiously approached and did the same.  The Toucan Barbets called in the distance, but didn’t come for breakfast, and there was no sign of the expected mountain-tanagers at all.  The last feeding station on the property was the hummingbird feeders at the edge of the forest, where we enjoyed views of Empress Brilliants, Violet-tailed Sylphs, Brown Incas and other hummers before finally getting breakfast ourselves.  It was worth the wait—Angel and his helpers had produced tasty bolones de verde (ground green plantain worked into balls, filled with cheese and deep fried… mmmmm) and huge empanadas.

The following day we drove to Mindo and began looking for Reserva las Tangaras, a private biological reserve where friends of ours were volunteering as caretakers. We finally found someone who gave us vague directions to the reserve, and drove several kilometres south of Mindo.  After a few false starts, we found a sign on the roadside and a small trail leading through an overgrown pasture.  It seems there was no actual road to the reserve at all, and small signs along the trail indicated the reserve was about a kilometre away, all downhill.  But the scenery and birding were both great so we continued on, finally crossing the Rio Nambillo on a cable bridge.  Unfortunately we found the station deserted—our friends were probably back in Mindo buying groceries.  We made the return hike (all uphill in the suddenly hot midday sun) and drove slowly through Mindo and there they were—Amanda and Scott carrying their purchases.  We made quick arrangements to come back the next morning for a proper visit.  The second trip was much more successful, including the discovery of a Club-winged Manakin lek.  Amanda and Scott had told us about the strange “tree-squeaking birds” they had only heard but never seen.  When I heard the sounds I realized this was a small group of male Club-winged Manakins.  Manakins as a family are well known for the strange and diverse dances and displays the males make to attract females.  Club-winged Manakin males do this by making insect-like tones by vibrating wing-feathers together at an amazing 100 times per second.  Each wing has two specialized feathers—one with a series of seven ridges on it, and a neighbouring feather with a curved tip.  The feathers produce a sound each time the tip rubs against each ridge; since this is done coming and going, there are 14 sounds produced with each shake or 1400 sounds per second.  You can see and hear this display by clicking here.  The rest of the morning was full of great birds—a Sunbittern in the river, four species of toucans (Ivory-billed Aracari, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Chocó Toucan and Chestnut-mandibled Toucan) and many other species.

Broad-billed Motmot

The next day we went back to Bellavista for the morning.  We met up with Carlos Sanchez, a volunteer guide from Miami, who showed us a roosting Common Potoo—so incredibly cryptic in its pose atop a snag that we wouldn’t have found it on our own.  Continuing up the trail, we encountered a couple of great mixed species flocks of birds, then found ourselves on the ridge road we’d walked a few days ago.  And there were Amanda and Scott, bicycling up the road towards us!  They’d hiked out of las Tangaras in the pre-dawn darkness, caught the bus to Nanegalito, then cycled 10 km straight up the mountain in hopes of meeting us—they had a set of portable speakers I’d accidentally left behind in their house!  We spent the rest of the morning with them, including a visit to Tony and Barb Nunnery’s place, touted as having the highest hummingbird yard list in the world (39 or 40 species at last count).  We didn’t see all of the hummers of course, but thoroughly enjoyed the show—as well as seeing a few new tanagers.

We were running short of cash by this point (Ecuador uses the American dollar as currency, by the way), so in the afternoon we drove to, appropriately, San Miguel de los Bancos, a largish town in the foothills west of Nanegalito and Mindo.  After a quick visit to the banco in los Bancos, Marg found an internet outlet to finish some work, and I drove back out of town to visit the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, a reserve famous for its lowland bird species typical of the Chocó, the bioregion on the west side of the Andes in Colombia and northern Ecuador.  I found myself alone at the reserve, but the hummingbird feeders were buzzing with birds—completely different from those at Alambi or elsewhere of course; the dominant species here was the Green Thorntail.  I walked the manakin trail to a Club-winged Manakin lek, and there found a great flock of birds, including four Ornate Flycatchers, an Immaculate Antbird and a stunning male Golden-winged Manakin.

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